Dismantling political misinformation campaigns in Texas

by | May 21, 2019 | 2020 Elections

Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2020 elections, the Texas Signal is taking a look at misinformation efforts to influence Texas politics. This is part one in a series.

Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election finally came to an end last month, but that doesn’t mean Russian misinformation efforts are likely to end any time soon.

Texas has been in the crosshairs.

In 2015, Governor Greg Abbott got sucked into a Russian misinformation campaign. He ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor a military training exercise called Jade Helm. The storyline in the right-wing media at the time was that President Obama was attempting to round up conservatives. It was a conspiracy theory inflamed by the Russians.

Michael Hayden, a former director of the NSA and CIA said it was an attempt by the Russians to dominate “the information space.”

In May 2016, dozens of people faced off outside an Islamic center in Houston. Roughly a dozen right-wing attendees— some of whom were armed and carrying Confederate flags— were invited to the rally to stop the “Islamization of Texas.” Counter-protestors rallied to “Save Islamic Knowledge” and stop hate.

Unbeknownst to the groups was the fact that they were both invited by Facebook pages owned and operated by the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” firm working on behalf of the Russian government.

Preparing for another wave of misinformation

When asked by the Texas Signal what steps the state is taking to manage Russian misinformation campaigns in terms of future elections, the office of the Texas Secretary of State pointed to recently updated security measures as an example of what is being done to protect Texas’ election infrastructure.

As of this month, the state has spent almost $1 million on “election improvements and security upgrades.”

But those changes only beef up security when it comes to polling and election infrastructure, such as making sure ballot machines are never connected to the internet. It’s not clear how state officials would mitigate misinformation from infecting policymaking, such as in Jade Helm, or in the 2020 political information landscape.

In talks with the Texas Signal, two experts familiar with the Russian-led influence campaigns say the operations are still going on and will continue to happen heading into 2020.

“Are you going to give up on something that made you look that powerful and appeared to damage the U.S. that much?” asked Sarah Oates, a University of Maryland professor and researcher who has studied Russian propaganda for 25 years “No, of course they’re going to continue.”

“Trump was just a fabulous gift to them,” Oates said. “The Russians are discrediting democracy and particularly interested in discrediting the power of the media. Without media, you just can’t have a democracy.”

Ryan Boyd, a University of Texas postdoctoral fellow who studied Russian ads and their troll accounts alongside Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon University, also said he’s certain 2020 will see more Russian influence attempts.

“The likelihood that these Russian firms are just like ‘oh, we got caught we’re not gonna stop doing all of this’ is virtually non-existent,” he said.

To combat online Russian misinformation, Texans will have to pressure lawmakers to adopt stricter regulations for social media companies, like Facebook, Oates said.

Are you tired of Texas Republicans pushing big lies and trying to steal your vote? So are we, that’s why we’re fighting back against the right-wing lie machine. Our commitment to ethical, fact-based journalism is vital to our democracy, and we can’t do it without you. Consider donating today to help us stay in this fight.

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