Last week, lawmakers released samples of more than 3,000 Facebook ads purchased by Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential election, shedding new light on the breadth of Moscow’s effort to destabilize American politics. One Russian-controlled Facebook group, Heart of Texas, explicitly promoted Islamophobia, white supremacy and secessionism in the Lone Star State.
A particularly striking incident dates back to May 2016, when Heart of Texas announced a “Stop Islamification of Texas” rally in front of an Islamic center in Houston. In response, another Russian-controlled group called United Muslims of America announced a counterprotest at the same time and location. Both rallies really happened — and there was open hostility between the two sides.
These revelations are certainly disturbing, but they’re also a little perplexing. What impact did these ads really have? After all, although Russian operatives organized the rallies, people showed up to them because of sentiments they’ve held for years. As counterprotester Ramon Mejia pointed out, “The Russians are just capitalizing on what is already existing in our society.”
This much is true: Nobody was brainwashed into prejudice or progressivism by either of these groups. But that doesn’t make them any less dangerous, nor does it detract from the seriousness of these revelations. The effect of the Russian effort was not to create new malefactors in Texan or American politics; it was to embolden those that already exist.
We shouldn’t question the autonomy of the people who attended these rallies. To reduce racists to limp marionettes under the control of an evil Russian puppet master is to absolve them of responsibility. To similarly reduce antiracists is to deny the justice of their cause. Moreover, bigotry isn’t some kind of artificial virus engineered by Russian scientists and subsequently injected into the American ecosystem.
Unfortunately, it’s endemic to this country — and for as long as it’s been around, it has been met with the righteous fury of those who oppose it.
Bigotry needs a confidence boost to become militant. When Donald Trump was elected president exactly one year ago today, many worried that the forces of hatred would become more open and aggressive — that white nationalists and neo-Nazis would take it as a sign that they could come out of hiding and take an active role in
Those fears were well-grounded, because racists need to feel like they’re not alone in order to function at their worst and most divisive. They need cover. And Russian groups fulfilled this role: They helped provide an environment in which our society’s most divisive elements could feel comfortable. And even as they made bigotry mainstream, they stoked fervor in its staunchest opponents, fueling the narrative of cultural conflict that nationalism thrives on.
And ultimately, the fears of Nov. 8, 2016, were borne out in the Trump era. Study after study shows that we’re becoming more hostile, and that bigotry has indeed been emboldened. Since 2011, the number of Americans who view racism as a “big problem” has doubled. The president, of course, has played a profound role in all of this — but so did Russian operatives when they co-opted the world’s largest social media platform.
Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves