As Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation, I have come across a series of events investigators uncovered that appear to be something the Russians staged while taking a break from their main job. It was a series of tweets and claims they inserted into social media that got two groups in Texas to unwittingly protest against each other while standing on opposite sides of the street, a confrontation so intense that only the police kept it from turning violent.
The Russians, wherever they were, must have high-fived one another at seeing the results.
In many ways, it reminded me of the wonderful early days of the internet, when everybody was so happy and excited about it. Remember flash mobs? A nice person would open a new store in a neighborhood, and friends would quietly arrange a surprise. The word would go out. At 3:20 p.m. on Friday, everybody go to this new store, come in the front door, mill around and congratulate the owners, then at 3:30 p.m. on the dot, buy something and take it to checkout. It might be another half-hour before you get to the front of the line, but by that time the owner would understand what was going on and be jumping up and down with joy.
Here’s what the Russians did, confirmed by American investigators: First, the Russians started a Facebook page called Heart of Texas, which took the position that Muslims were taking over America and would have to be stopped. In a very short time, this page attracted about a quarter-million followers.
In early May of 2016, the Russians learned of a plan by a mosque in Houston to open up a new library. Heart of Texas sounded the alarm. “Stop Islamization of Texas!!” they declared. “Join us in protest. Make your voices heard.” The Heart of Texas page then named the street corner and the time and day.
Heart of Texas then arranged to have this posted on Reddit, a popular website with millions of readers. Then the Russians unleashed Part Two.
Earlier, they discovered a real organization called United Muslims of America, which had a large viewership but did not have a Facebook page. So the Russians created a fake page for them and linked it to Reddit. And on Reddit, they sounded the alarm about what Heart of Texas was about to do.
“Bigots are planning to intimidate through weaponized fear this Saturday at noon,” one of the “Muslims” on Reddit wrote. Then the Russians “found” this on the Facebook page they created for United Muslims of America. And here, the Russians demanded a counterattack. Don’t let these bigots win. Be at the location at noon Saturday. We are all Americans. They are not going to get away with this.
Thus, that Saturday at noon, two crowds stood across the street from each other, hurling insults. In describing what happened, The New York Times wrote “Videos of the protest show real emotion—people on opposite sides of the street screaming, swearing and truly angry to have to share the country with the bozos on the other side.”
I watched a video. Confederate flags wave. Dozens of the Muslim protesters shake signs. It’s pretty nasty.
Only the Houston police, pacing around in bulletproof vests in the center of the street, kept these two mobs from attacking each other.
Unfettered and unregulated, the internet was for many years a happy place where users enjoyed doing research, meeting friends, watching cat videos and hooking up. What’s happened? It’s like the movie Gremlins, where children meet this group of new, cuddly furry animals who grow into monsters that kill people.
If we can’t or won’t regulate or find a way to stop what this has turned into, we will instead get what we deserve—hatred, fake news and violence that will ultimately unravel the democracy we all hold so dear.