The imagined American Civil War -- How was the disinformation about the Texas border standoff started, escalated, and amplified by Russian, Chinese, and Taiwanese propagators?

The imagined American Civil War -- How was the disinformation about the Texas border standoff started, escalated, and amplified by Russian, Chinese, and Taiwanese propagators?

By Wei-Ping Li, PhD

Between late January and early February 2024, the Chinese and Taiwanese media spheres were rife with reports of an American civil war escalating from the standoff between the federal and Texas state governments in Eagle Pass, Texas. Obviously, this was false information. However, by following the trajectory of the rumors, we observed how actors in Russia, China, and Taiwan contributed to the spread and evolution of false information. These actors had a variety of motives and did not necessarily coordinate. Nevertheless, they all took part in forging a narrative of a chaotic and declining United States based on erroneous facts.

First, this is what has happened in Texas: The U.S. federal government and the Texas state government have clashed on how to handle the immigrant surge at the Texas border. On January 11, Texas Governor Greg Abbott blocked an area in Eagle Pass and prevented federal Border Patrol agents from entering, claiming the necessity for the Texas National Guard to protect the state and safeguard the border. On January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order ruling that the federal government had power over border matters and allowing federal officers to cut the concertina wire along the border. After receiving the Supreme Court's order, Abbott issued a statement emphasizing the state's right to "self-defense," which was supported by 25 other Republican governors. The standoff is still underway as of the writing of this analysis.

During the border standoff, there was indeed a call for Texas to secede from the United States, but only a small number of ardent secessionists and extreme right-wing supporters supported the idea; some American anchors, like Fox News host Maria Bartiromo, did raise hypothetical questions like "What is this going to turn into, a civil war?" during TV interviews. Overall, there have been no signs of intensified armed conflicts between federal and state agents. Nevertheless, the Russian propaganda machine and Chinese disinformation propagators took advantage of the development on the Texas border and spun stories that the United States was on the verge of an outbreak of a civil war. 

According to Wired magazine, Russian politicians, online influencers, and state media soon promoted the message that an American civil war is inevitable and imminent after the Texas standoff. For example, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council and former Russian president, posted on X on January 26 that "[e]stablishing a People's Republic of Texas is getting more and more real," and [t]his is yet another vivid example of the U.S. hegemony getting weaker." 

Following Medvedev's post, the social media accounts of Russian state media and personalities on Telegram echoed the narrative that a civil war was going to happen. Experts observed that bot accounts previously linked to a Russian disinformation campaign called Doppelganger, which targeted the U.S., Ukraine, and Germany, shared articles published on fake news websites, asserting that Texas had become a battleground. Moreover, Russian accounts have been seen to infiltrate groups of right-wing extremists or activists supporting the Texas state government's action. Wired said the purpose of these Russian narratives was to exploit the Texas standoff and sow the seeds of division in the United States.

On Chinese social media, rumors about the civil war have been taking off since January 27. Within the next few days, unverified details, images, and videos were then added to provide the "evidence" that protestors, significant numbers of soldiers, weapons, and tanks were gathering at the Texas border. 

One of the first examples was a Weibo post by a Chinese influencer that featured footage of farm tractors assembling on a slope. The author explained that Texas farmers had congregated to protest Biden's border-opening policy and that "the federal government and the Texas state had intense clashes." "The People's Republic of Texas will most likely be founded!"  

The Taiwan FactCheck Center discovered that the event depicted in the film was, in fact, a demonstration that happened in January 2024 in Forchtenberg, Germany, where farmers protested against a change in tax laws. Under the misleading title "Farmers blocking the Border and standing for Texas," the false information containing the video was disseminated not only on the Chinese Douyin but also on global platforms such as TikTok.

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Figure 1 A screenshot of a Weibo post claiming that farmer tractors gathered on the Texas-Mexican border to protest people who entered the US-Mexico border illegally.

Another Weibo influencer with millions of followers posted on January 29 that the Texas governor has declared to "enter into the status of war" and claimed that "the U.S. federal military and the Texas National Guard met on the battlefield. 25 states have sent their National Guards to support [the Texas National Guard]. At least 400 Humvees, 72 M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and 48 M109 self-propelled howitzers were sent to the "front line" of Texas…"

Figures 2 and 3 A post on Weibo said that "Texas announced to enter the state of war." The photos were identical to a post shared on X, which asserted that tanks and vehicles were sent to Texas.

The texts and the photos the Chinese influencer used were identical to the ones shared by an X account, which has often shared information about the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war. On January 28 (the Taiwan standard time), the user posted several false information pieces, attempting to spread messages that large troops with armored vehicles were heading toward Texas and "come in handy for a different type of confrontation." In another post, this X user said forces continued pulling in, and people had started to store water and food. This account's post was also soon shared by users in other languages, such as German and Russian.

In fact, the account misrepresented the photos. According to the Asia Fact Check Lab's fact-checking, the Kansas National Guard initially released the images of the tanks on January 27 to show soldiers transporting tanks and vehicles to Fort Bliss, Texas, for military training, which is unrelated to the border standoff. 

Disinformation about the American Civil War continued to circulate and evolve on social media in February. In early February, a false information piece even claimed that "The situation in Texas was terrible, "the river has been red and filled with bodies…bodies were carried out by cars, Ak47s that lost their owners were everywhere…"   

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Figure 4  A screenshot of a post on Twitter claiming that the situation in Texas was "horrible," where the river was red and full of dead bodies. But the federal government has prevented the news from spreading.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media, such as Global Times, described the federal-state standoff as an "armed confrontation [武裝對峙]" and quoted Russian former president Medvedev's remark about the U.S.'s waning influence, concluding that the standoff was a sign of the U.S.'s demise.  

Although there isn't sufficient evidence to suggest that Russia and China coordinated this disinformation effort over the Texas border standoff, both countries exploited the conflicts between the U.S. federal and state governments to highlight a broken America. The roles played by politicians, state media, and online influencers in these Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns were also identical: while politicians and state media set the tone of the event without mentioning many details, online influencers furnished the narratives by providing misrepresented images and exaggerated claims. 

Both China and Russia are hostile toward the United States and have for long propagandized the view of a decadent America. Their accounts of the Texas standoff were consistent with their previous narratives. However, disinformation regarding "the American Civil War" was also disseminated in Taiwan, but through mainstream television news and talk programs rather than social media.

The Taiwan FactCheck Center reviewed the dissemination of disinformation on social media regarding the Texas standoff. The findings indicate that while disinformation articles have been circulated on Weibo, their impact on Facebook or LINE, which are more popular in Taiwan, has been limited. On the contrary, Taiwanese TV news and talk shows have played a much more major role in disseminating disinformation. 

For example, some Taiwanese TV news used false Weibo videos of tanks heading to Texas without first verifying the information's validity. The majority of the titles for these Taiwanese news clips included the phrase "American Civil War." Even though a question mark was added to the end of the phrase, the message repeated the narratives prevalent in Chinese disinformation pieces, which suggest that the United States is in disorder.

A large group of tanks on a trainDescription automatically generated
Figure 5 A screenshot of a Taiwanese news clip that used a misleading photo from a Weibo account. This photo was actually an image about another event irrelevant to the Texas standoff but was used to showcase the armed conflict in Texas and circulated on X and Weibo. 

In addition to news reporting, some talk shows also used incorrect images from Chinese social media to “evidence” how severe the situation in Texas was and invited guests to make comments. None of the hosts or guests pointed out that the photos or information were false portrayals of the situation.

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Figure 6 A screenshot of a Taiwanese talk show using the false information circulated by X, Weibo accounts, and Taiwanese online news media. The talk shows did not verify the information and made comments based on the incorrect information.

Both the pro-China and the more-anti-China Taiwanese online news media, TV news, and talk shows used false information to present the "American Civil War" narratives. Therefore, rather than intentionally amplifying Chinese propaganda, the reasons behind Taiwanese media's misrepresentation of a chaotic U.S. image are more like a combination of lousy journalistic work and the pursuit of audiences' attention.

Nevertheless, it was this kind of unprofessional and irresponsible journalism that has plagued Taiwan's capacity against disinformation.

The Taiwanese media's portrayal of the Texas standoff may not immediately impact Taiwanese audiences, but the impression of a chaotic America delivered by the media could exert a long-term influence on shaping the Taiwanese worldview and enhancing the skepticism toward the U.S.'s competence in handling domestic and international conflicts.

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.

Rogge Chen (Fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center) contributed to this analysis.

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