In 2015, a new conspiracy theory swept across much of the American South and Southwest, claiming that then-President Barack Obama was planning on using an upcoming military exercise to install martial law across the country.
Known as Jade Helm, the exercise took part over a number of states, including Texas. The conspiratorial concerns were sufficient enough to convince Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to send the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercises — a move that a plurality of Texans agreed with.
Of course, Obama never plotted any dictatorship or martial law, and Jade Helm ended as little more than a routine exercise for the American military. But this week, we got a glimpse into why conspiracies about Jade Helm seemed to spike when they did.
As the Texas Tribune first reported, former CIA chief Michael Hayden appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe podcast on Thursday, where he revealed that Twitter bot accounts run out of Russia amplified messages about Jade Helm conspiracies.
“There was an exercise in Texas, called Jade Helm 15, that Russian bots and the American alt-right media convinced most, many Texans was an Obama plan to round up political dissidents,” Hayden said.
The former CIA head added that Abbott’s decision to send the Texas State Guard to monitor the American military showed operatives in Russia just how successful this type of online messaging could be. “At that point, I’m figuring the Russians are saying: We can go big-time,” Hayden said. “They made the decision: We’re going to play in  the electoral process.”
Conspiracies run amok
It’s unclear what specific “bots” Hayden is talking about, but Russian attempts to stoke fears about Jade Helm extended to other platforms.
At least one fake Russian Facebook account pushed the idea that Jade Helm was little more than an excuse for Obama to reify his dictatorship.
The “Heart of Texas” Facebook page — a page that would eventually grow to have more followers than the official Texas Democrat and Texas Republican pages combined — posted that Obama was “actually consider[ing] imposing martial law on us… The military exercises is some kind of Washington’s attempt to frighten and subordinate Texas and other states [sic].” A photo alongside the post said that Washington “carr[ying] out military exercises to frighten Texas and southern states.”
And here’s what our favorite fake Russian Facebook page, Heart of Texas, had to say about Jade Helm, typos and all:
“The military exercises is some kind of Washington’s attempt to frighten and subordinate Texas and other states.” pic.twitter.com/D4jBUpvjLD
— Casey Michel (@cjcmichel) May 3, 2018
On Russian propaganda channel RT, multiple segments leading up to the Jade Helm exercises played up the conspiratorial elements. One clip, citing InfoWars, said that the acronym for “Helm” may stand for “Homeland Eradication of Local Militants.”
Another clip from RT — titled “Shots fired: War of Jade Helm 15 begins” — saw the host wonder out loud if Jade Helm was “just training exercises,” adding that “there’s no doubt [Jade Helm] has started some kind of war, and this time it’s between America and itself.”
There’s no evidence that the Jade Helm conspiracy began with Russian bots; one expert on tracking the extreme right told ThinkProgress that she had tracked the original conspiracy back to an American source, not a Russian source. But the fact that bots pushed messaging specifically aimed at Texans squares with other operations, from Facebook to RT to hosting Texas secessionists multiple times in Moscow.
Moreover, the Russian bots — along with fake Facebook accounts and propaganda channels — specifically hyped a conspiracy that could have resulted in significant bloodshed. As the Washington Post reported, a trio of men in North Carolina believed Obama was plotting, via Jade Helm, the imposition of martial law. They gathered bombs, grenades, and gunpowder in a planned attack against members of the U.S. military, but were arrested before they could unleash their plan. All three were charged with conspiracy and received prison sentences.