Reverse-engineering political protest: The Russian Internet Research Agency in the Heart of Texas


In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, the public slowly began to grapple with the extent of Russian disinformation campaigns by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), elements of which were carried out on Facebook. Campaigns targeted people in the United States in many ways, including by publishing event pages on Facebook that were at times piggybacking on existing events, stoking fear, anger and other emotions already on the rise in an increasingly tribal political climate. In the summer before the election, two particular Facebook pages – ‘Heart of Texas’ and the ‘United Muslims of America,’ published events advertising protests in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center, a mosque and religious center in downtown Houston. Our study reverse-engineers the IRA-inspired ‘Heart of Texas’ protests on 21 May 2016, using qualitative in-depth interviews with 14 individuals connected to these events – including counterprotest participants and local organizers, journalists who covered the protest, as well as representatives of local organizations. Results shed light on the role that news media played in protest coverage, the dynamics at the protest, issues around vetting information and the serendipity around how protests emerge and get organized on and off social media. This research documents and critically assesses the on-the-ground transactions such propaganda foments and offers insights into the role of social media in local protests.