February 22, 2024

“When I’m trying to identify disinformation operations in the wild I need to understand the initial signals and ideas that Russian state media and influencers are sharing,” Walter tells WIRED. “Russian Telegram channels just blew up overnight, and started really dialing into messaging specifically about the possibility that Texas could be an independent state, the possibility that there could be a US civil war.”

Russian state media echoed these claims, and published a flood of articles with headlines featuring phrases like “Civil War 2.0.” They also spread conspiracies claiming that “US elites will keep the border wide open.”

Last week, the Russian Telegram channels and state media also began to boost the ‘Take Our Border Back’ convoy led by far-right extremists, sovereign citizens, QAnon adherents, and anti-vaccine conspiracists who traveled from Virginia to the border in Texas in support of Abbott. “Fears of FBI Spying on ‘Take Our Border Back’ Convoy Show US Democracy Dying,” one Sputnik headline read last week.

The convoy’s official channels on Telegram were also infiltrated by Russian accounts, though some were removed or called out by the US-based members of the group. “They are in every single group on any social media,” one member who calls themselves ‘Eat Putin’s Heart’ wrote on Telegram in response to a question about why Russians were members of the group. “They want a civil war/chaos more than anything. What’s bad for America is great for Russia.”

Researchers at Antibot4Navalny, a Russian anti-disinformation research group that has been closely tracking a Russian disinformation network known as Doppelganger on X, shared data exclusively with WIRED that shows a network of bot accounts previously linked to the Doppelganger campaign has been deployed online in the past week to discuss the Texas issue.

The campaign, like previous Doppelganger campaigns, shared links to fake websites designed to look legitimate but which actually contain fake articles made to undermine the US. One article, for example, appeared on a fake site called Warfare Insider, and stated that Texas “has become a battleground symbolizing the clash between state and federal authorities.”

In recent days, the bots have also been responding to posts unrelated to Texas by referencing the situation at the border.

Some experts have been linking this campaign to previous Russian disinformation campaigns. Already, it echoes the incident when Russian operatives were accused of organizing an anti-immigrant rally and a counterprotest event to their own rally in Texas ahead of the 2016 election.

Caroline Orr, a behavioral scientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland who tracks disinformation online, wrote in her newsletter Weaponized that the term “Free Texas” in Russian was being “used extensively [on X], and nearly exclusively, by Russian accounts associated with the notorious Internet Research Agency, which housed the 2016 election interference operation.”

The IRA was a Kremlin-linked troll farm launched in St. Petersburg that gained notoriety for its role in attempting to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. It was run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin who also ran the Wagner mercenary group until he died in a mysterious helicopter crash last year.

There also appear to be a number of Russian accounts on X posing as pro-Texas groups, in another echo of 2016 when an account that claimed to be run by Tennessee Republicans was outed as Russian-run.

One of the suspect accounts is the Texan Independence Supporters, which has already been called out for spelling errors and constantly referencing Ukraine and Russia. On Sunday, the account claimed “we are a Texan organization, not Russian. We can definitely assure ya’ll [sic] that we’re not Russian.”

Before this, Russia had already been accused of dipping its toe in the 2024 US presidential election—including boosting Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign—but Walters says the effort to push the Texas crisis narrative marks an escalation in the Kremlin’s efforts.

“This is the first thing that I see as a potentially significant concern to look out for, because I think it is an area [where] they could fairly easily cause more divide in the US,” he says.