In today’s world, whose headlines read more and more like cut-rate spy flicks and dystopian thriller knockoffs, the question of Russian interference in our most recent presidential election has become less Did they? and more How much did they?
In September, Facebook purged hundreds of accounts discovered to be tied to a Kremlin-backed Russian company, created to influence last year’s presidential election and sow discontent amongst Americans. For Casey Michel—a Rice grad, journalist and Russia expert who’d been following along from his current home in New York City—one of those in particular had long stood out as almost certainly Russia-created: Heart of Texas, a pro-secession page that had racked up nearly a quarter million followers by the time it was taken down and had even organized a (sparsely attended) anti-Muslim rally here in 2016, outside the Islamic Da’wah Center, timed to coincide with the opening of the center’s new library.
Michel had been archiving the page’s memes and images for a year and a half before Facebook took it down. At first, he just followed along because it was funny. The page’s memes were full of odd spellings and grammatical errors—“Always Be Ready for a Texas Size,” read one; another featured a picture of Bill and Hillary overlaid with “No Hypoclintos in the God Blessed Texas.” But as time went on, it became more worrying.
Because the deleted accounts weren't released to the public, Michel’s become a go-to source for the content Heart of Texas was promoting. Houstonia chatted with him about its hilarious dead giveaways, as well as the more serious implications of Texans falling for Russia’s meddling.
Where did your expertise in Russia come from?
When I was at Rice in undergrad, I wanted to be a sports reporter. I became editor in chief of the Rice paper senior year, and I realized I wanted to do something beyond that. I applied to the Peace Corps. They sent me to Kazakhstan, where there are minus-40 winters. I was an English teacher in a small village on the Kazakhstan border. It was supposed to be for two years, but it got cut short due to security concerns. I was left wanting to find out more about the people, the culture, the history. So I went to grad school for Russian studies in New York. Journalism is my background, so I saw myself covering the post-Soviet space in some capacity. At some point about two-and-a-half years ago, I developed a bizarre fascination with Texas secession, the whole return-to-independence movement. I never imagined the two interests crossing—not in this way.
How did the Heart of Texas page get on your radar?
I don’t remember how I found it initially; a tweet, or something in the Russian press. The Texas Nationalist Movement, a real organization based in Texas—one of their members flew over to Moscow for a secession conference. There were delegates from Hawaii and Puerto Rico and other places, gathered in Moscow to trade encouragements and tactics, in Russia, which piqued my interest. I wrote a story about it, and the Texas Nationalist Movement blocked me on Twitter. (laughs) But in early 2016, this Facebook page crossed my radar—these typos and these graphics they used were fascinating to me. As 2016 progressed, it went beyond Texas pride and secession, and became more anti-refugee, anti-Clinton, anti-immigrant. And the typos started to disappear; the spelling got better, unfortunately. Six weeks ago, when it got pulled down, there were a quarter of a million followers, and there were hundreds of these accounts—the followers were in the millions.
What do you think it means that the page went beyond misspelled memes and into organizing actual protests on the ground in places like Houston?
I think there are a couple big takeaways. The main one is that they were able to organize gullible Americans to show up in person to protest this Islamic library that had opened in Houston. It wasn’t hundreds of people [news reports say about 10 people showed up; a counter-protest across the street, since revealed to also have been planned by Russian operatives, had dozens]; it was the fact that it happened and the fact that some protesters came with heavy weaponry. In this post-Charlottesville view of U.S. politics, we can’t take for granted, unfortunately, that these protests will remain peaceful. The other big takeaway is that Facebook can and has been manipulated so easily, so extensively and consistently, and with little money. But the reach, and the fallout—we’re still assessing the fallout.
What do you think this says about Texans at this moment in time?
It’s very clear that Russia and folks in Russia are very interested in Texas secession. It’s a state apart in how it views itself, and its history and legacy, and that lives on. There’s a reason that they didn’t target Oregon or Oklahoma to try to stir up and organize supporters for secession. It’s likely an attempt at distracting and deterring domestic American officials, bogging them down with domestic discontent. And there are certain actors in Moscow that are more than interested in seeing an American fracture come to pass.
How do you think the 10 folks who protested would react if they found out they were duped by Russians?
I would like to wish that if people who turned out to this protest realized it was a Russian operation, they’d say, Who are these actors abroad trying to dupe us? Unfortunately, I don’t think that’d be the case. Facebook hasn’t been forthright about who exactly these followers were, but if push came to shove, I’d guess they’d say, So what? Even if they were foreign, the U.S. has done this kind of stuff. There’s a reason these Facebook pages have been so successful in gaining followers. They tapped into things people were feeling. At the end of day, you’d hope people would feel a bit chagrined, but it’s a weird time. There’s an alternate timeline where none of this past two years happened, and everything is normal. Unfortunately, that’s not this one.