Could Russia target Houston again? Some in D.C. say yes

Houstonians targeted before, after 2016 presidential election

HOUSTON – Russia's infamous Internet Research Agency successfully targeted Houstonians both before and after the 2016 presidential election, and a Washington, D.C., think tank believes Houston will be a target again, if it is not already.

"Houston is important because Texas is moving toward a swing state, and also, there is a legitimate secession movement in Texas," Bret Schafer, with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said in a recent interview with Channel 2 Investigates.

A Facebook page, Heart of Texas, created by the Russian Internet Research Agency, and now defunct, gained significant popularity among some segments of the Southeast Texas population and claimed more than 250,000 followers at one point.

Heart of Texas pushed content regarding Texas secession, tighter border control and anti-Islamist views.

A May 21, 2016 protest and counter-protest in downtown Houston regarding so-called "Islamification" was created and scheduled by the Russians and attended by Houstonians.

"This is an example where they actually literally got people into the streets, both sides of the streets, trying to inflame tensions," Schafer said.

KPRC Channel 2 was among a number of local TV stations that covered the event, with no idea that the event was orchestrated by a foreign entity.

"It just keeps Americans fighting against each other," Schafer said. "When we're fighting each other, we're not paying attention to what Russia is doing abroad, and it keeps us less unified with our European allies."

The federal government and major social media platforms have taken significant steps to identify and block foreign propaganda campaigns, but it is nearly impossible to find all the "bad actors."

[Click here to find the searchable archive of foreign social media propaganda campaigns]

Russia, China and other foreign government efforts are not the only entities employing this type of tailored messaging, either.

The key ingredient, according to Dr.  Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University's Baker Institute, is the appearance of grassroots authenticity, even if it's just a couple of computer programmers sitting in a dark room. 

"Pretty much anybody with an agenda has now seen this as an effective way to support your side or support your policy, so you're going to see people try it," Jones said.