Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., on Wednesday charged that Russian trolls posted ads on Facebook during last year's election in order to get people to "battle in the streets" in Texas, and released examples of some of those ads in a committee hearing as evidence.
One Russian-backed Facebook group was called the “Heart of Texas” and had more than 250,000 followers with the motto of “Texas — homeland of guns, BBQ and ur heart!” That group created a public event to occur on a specific day in May last year called, “Stop the Islamization of Texas,” which was to be held at an Islamic center in Houston.
But Russian trolls also backed another Facebook group that had a different message: “United Muslims of America" had more than 328,000 followers, and its motto was, “I’m a Muslim and I’m proud.”
The fake Islamic group created a “Save Islamic Knowledge” event, to be held on the same day, and at the same time and place, as the "Stop the Islamization of Texas" event created by the Texas group.
Both groups placed ads to promote their own events, and local media turned out to cover the protests and counter-protests. Burr showed pictures of several dozen people attending the event.
“What neither side could have known is that Russia trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans,” Burr said. “Ironically, one person who attended stated, ‘The ‘Heart of Texas’ promoted this event, but we didn’t see one of them.’ We now know why. It’s hard to attend an event in Houston, Texas when you’re trolling from a site in St. Petersburg, Russia.”
Burr said Russia’s involvement in promoting the divisive set of events cost them “about $200.”
Wednesday's hearing involved witnesses from Facebook, Twitter and Google, all three of which have told congressional investigators that Russia sought to use social media platforms to influence the 2016 election.
The three technology giants testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Tuesday, and go before the House Intelligence Committee later Wednesday.
The "Heart of Texas" group was first introduced at Tuesday's hearing by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who showed another ad from that group was anti-Hillary Clinton and ran in May 2016. Coons said the ad was targeted to Facebook users who showed interest in things like patriotism and support for veterans.
Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, told Coons the company was not able to say if the posts influenced anyone directly: “We’re not well-positioned to judge why any one person or an entire electorate voted as it did."
Business Insider first reported on the "Heart of Texas" Facebook group in September, with the group's intent to get a Texas secessionist movement to participate in planned anti-Clinton rallies.