At this point, there are lots of examples of Russia using online disinformation to sow discord in the United States. Now the ongoing conflict between the State of Texas and the Biden administration over operations at the border has given the Russian propagandists another opening.
A new report in Wired shows how Russian bots, influencers and even state officials used the border dispute to push the idea of an imminent civil war in the United States.
David Gilbert, who covers disinformation and online extremism for Wired, spoke to the Texas Standard about the propaganda campaign.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: It’s my understanding you’ve obtained some analyzes of Russian disinformation linked to what’s happening on Texas’ southern border with Mexico. What do these analyzes show exactly?
David Gilbert: I suppose the data that we’ve looked at shows that it’s kind of a full-court press, really, from Russia. We’re seeing this narrative that a civil war may break out at any moment in the U.S. pretty much from every angle.
And the analysis shows that everyone from the former president, Dmitry Medvedev, as well as military bloggers, lifestyle influencers and bots, as you mentioned, are all pushing this narrative that the U.S. is on the brink of civil war and thus Texas should secede from the United States, and that Russia will be there to support this.
And in a lot of cases, it’s quite obvious what they’re doing. But in other cases it’s it’s much more subtle, and it has the potential to just increase a division that’s already there in the U.S.
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Could you give us an example of what’s being put out there in the media landscape, something that might arguably be genuinely persuasive?
I suppose for me, what was surprising was just how open the Russian government figures are. So we saw, as I mentioned, the former president and former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev put out a tweet just as this kind of was getting underway. And he was kind of saying that the U.S. has lost its leadership role in the world and that a bloody civil war would cost thousands and thousands of lives.
And I suppose coming from someone who has a verified mark on Twitter and, you know, who is a recognizable figure gives it a level of persuasiveness and trustworthiness that maybe you wouldn’t have got by anonymous bots. But it goes from there right down to the other end of the spectrum, where we see a Twitter account called the Texan Independence Supporters, which looks for all the world like it’s a group in Texas who want the state to secede from the union.
And it only has a couple of dozen followers or a couple of hundred followers, I think, at the moment. They tried to speak in what I guess they think is a Texas accent, but they just don’t get it right. They’re clearly not natural English speakers. So they’ve been called out as Russian bots, to the point where they’ve already denied the fact that they’re a Russian operation.
So I think if you take those two perspectives, that gives you a good sense of how kind of vast this effort is to push disinformation by the Russian government.
I’m curious, though – who’s this aimed at? Is this supposed to genuinely sow discord in the U.S or undermine U.S prestige on the world stage, or what exactly?
I think it’s both. I think the Texan independence movement – we saw back in 2016, there was a Tennessee GOP Twitter account that became hugely influential, and it was cited in multiple media stories as kind of a bellwether account for what the Republicans were thinking at the time. And it turns out that that was run by the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency.
So I think with the Texan supporters group, that’s that same type of thing where they are trying to influence people in the U.S. They are trying to stoke up tension; they’re trying to stoke up fear.
But with the other messages, from Medvedev and the foreign ministry spokesperson and another lawmaker, where they’re all talking about helping Texas if they want to secede and talking about civil war, that is designed to undermine U.S. hegemony or U.S. leadership across the globe in the English-speaking world. They are also looking to undermine us within Russia, to make the US seem as if it’s not as powerful or as strong as it once was.