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Russian Trolls Behind Both Sides of Islamic Center Protest In Houston

A slide released by North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr during congressional hearings with representatives from Twitter, Facebook and Google.
A slide released by North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr during congressional hearings with representatives from Twitter, Facebook and Google.
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Outside of the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston, two groups clashed over a newly installed Library of Islamic Knowledge this past May. Now it appears both groups — the protesters and the counter-protesters — were coaxed there by the same source.

After Democrats from the House Intelligence Committee released examples of Russian-sponsored ads during Wednesday’s hearing with leaders from Facebook, Google and Twitter, North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr revealed that both online organizations, Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America, were created by Russian-sponsored groups.

“What neither side could have known was that Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans," said Burr, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Heart of Texas, which was exposed last month for being run by Russian trolls, originally sponsored the event “Stop the Islamization of Texas” with a rally in front of the Da’wah Center in May 2016. Soon after, United Muslims of America, planned an event to “Save Islamic Knowledge” at the same time and place.

At the event, about 10 people holding United States, Texas and Confederate flags, and even one man in a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt, clashed, with words rather than violence, with 60 counter-protesters stationed in front of the center.

The Houston Chronicle noted at the time that the Heart of Texas group never showed and a lawyer representing the Islamic Center said no counter-protest was planned.

Now we know why.

Days before the event in 2016, a spokesman for the Heart of Texas told the Houston Press via email that “Last time we checked, Houston was predominantly Christian city, so what's the point? We don't build Christian churches in the Middle East, do we?” A year later, CNN reported that Heart of Texas was controlled by an online “Troll Factory” called the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.

Both Heart of Texas and United Muslims of American have since been removed from Facebook.

The two groups are just a sample of the Russian-sponsored content placed online during last year's election. Samples of ads released by the House Intelligence Committee include groups like the Army of Jesus, which featured an showing Jesus and Satan arm-wrestling with Satan saying, “If I win, Clinton wins,” and LGBT United, which advertised for the popular “Buff Bernie” coloring book of a hulked-out Bernie Sanders in multi-colored tights.

Facebook revealed at the hearings this week that as many as 150 million Americans saw Russia-generated ads on its site.

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