Russian operatives hiding behind false identities used Facebook’s event-management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S., including an August 2016 anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho, The Daily Beast has learned.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast that the social-media giant “shut down several promoted events as part of the takedown we described last week.” The company declined to elaborate, except to confirm that the events were promoted with paid ads. (This is the first time the social-media giant has publicly acknowledged the existence of such events.)
The Facebook events—one of which echoed Islamophobic conspiracy theories pushed by pro-Trump media outlets—are the first indication that the Kremlin’s attempts to shape America’s political discourse moved beyond fake news and led unwitting Americans into specific real-life action.
“This is the next step,” Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russia’s influence campaign, told The Daily Beast. “The objective of influence is to create behavior change. The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something.”
Last week Facebook acknowledged for the first time that Russia used false identities and about 3,000 ads to spread politically divisive posts to Americans before and after the election. The content, according to an expert on Facebook’s advertising system, was likely seen by between 23 and 70 million people, based on the $100,000 ad buy alone.
Much of the Russian Facebook propaganda campaign has since been deleted. But bits and pieces remain visible in search-engine caches, including a 2016 notice on Facebook Events—the site’s event-management and invitation tool—announcing an Aug. 27 rally in a rural Idaho town known to welcome refugees.
“Due to the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, becoming a center of refugee resettlement, which led to the huge upsurge of violence towards American citizens, it is crucial to draw society's attention to this problem,” the event notice began. The three-hour protest was titled “Citizens before refugees,” and would be held at the City Council Chambers beginning at 11 a.m. The notice provided the street address and ended with a fiery exhortation.
“We must stop taking in Muslim refugees! We demand open and thorough investigation of all the cases regarding Muslim refugees! All government officials, who are covering up for these criminals, should be fired!”
The event was “hosted” by “SecuredBorders,” a putative U.S. anti-immigration community that was outed in March as a Russian front. The Facebook page had 133,000 followers when Facebook closed it last month.
Although 48 people clicked that they were “interested” in the protest, only four said they went to City Council Chambers that day, according to the event page, possibly because it was a Saturday and the Council was not in session. It is also possible to claim attendance on Facebook at an event that didn’t exist. Some of the profiles of interested rallygoers listed themselves as Twin Falls residents.
Facebook did not explain if the “several promoted events” were upcoming ones at the time of the account deactivation or were events that had already occurred at the time of deactivation. But the spokesman confirmed that the “promoted” events were paid events, akin to the inflammatory ads that the company disclosed last week.
Far-right, pro-Trump firehoses Breitbart, InfoWars, and WorldNetDaily had pushed a series of stories implying immigrants were taking over Twin Falls since the beginning of 2016. The stories reached a fever pitch in the month before SecuredBorders’ event.
A WorldNetDaily writer called Chobani’s plan to hire immigrants to work at the Twin Falls plant an “Islamic surge” in a January 2016 piece once titled “American Yogurt Tycoon Vows to Choke U.S. With Muslims.” (That post’s headline has since been changed, and the “Islamic surge” wording was removed.)
One InfoWars article claimed that Chobani’s workers were responsible for a “500 percent increase in tuberculosis in Twin Falls.”
InfoWars and Alex Jones published videos with the titles “MSM Covers For Globalist’s Refugee Import Program After Child Rape Case” and “Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists,” which have since been removed.
When Chobani sued InfoWars over the claims in April, Jones initially claimed that he was “not backing down, I’m never giving up, I love this” and that “I’m choosing this as a battle. On this I will stand. I will win, or I will die.”
Jones settled three weeks later, and was forced to issue a retraction of the false stories InfoWars invented about immigrants in Twin Falls. Some of the offending articles and videos have since been removed.
Breitbart, which was not sued by Chobani, still has a story titled “TB spiked 500 percent in Twin Falls During 2012, As Chobani Yogurt Opened Plant” on its website.
(Tuberculosis cases rose from one to six in 2012, then dropped back down to two in 2013. There is no proof in the article tying tuberculosis to immigrants.)
The tuberculosis story was posted one day before SecuredBorders’ real-life rally was set to take place in Twin Falls.
The story was one of dozens of negative Breitbart stories about immigrants in Twin Falls in August of 2016. In the month before SecuredBorders created its Facebook event, Breitbart posted 37 articles about immigrants in Twin Falls.
Many of the stories, like one titled “Twin Falls Rape Special Report: Why Are the Refugees Moving In?” revolve around what Breitbart called a “gang rape” that Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said was misreported.
“There was no gang rape, no knife attack, and we did not charge anybody with rape because no rape occurred,” Loebs told the Magic Valley Times News.
“There is a small group of people in Twin Falls County whose life goal is to eliminate refugees, and thus far they have not been constrained by the truth.”