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Texas GOP Official's Photo Distributed By Russian Bot

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Russian effort to interfere with the 2016 elections is touching some Americans in surprising ways. Friday's indictment spelled out some of the ways Russia set up front groups on social media to inflame political divisions in the U.S. And Dwayne Wright's photo wound up in one of those front groups.

Dwayne Wright is the chairman of the San Jacinto County Republican Party. It's a county just north of Houston, Texas. The group that shared his photo was called Heart of Texas. And Chairman Dwayne Wright joins us now. Welcome.

DWAYNE WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Heart of Texas was a secessionist group with a quarter-million followers before Facebook shut it down. Describe the photo of you that the group shared.

WRIGHT: Well, it was a photo - we actually prepared a PVC pipe jail cell, and we had put a cutout of Hillary Clinton inside there. And then there was the cutout likeness of Donald Trump standing next to it with a - like, a sheriff's badge on. And I was standing next to Trump, you know, with my thumb up, you know, basically saying that it was a pretty good deal that we actually had her in jail.

SHAPIRO: What was your reaction when you learned that this image had been shared on Facebook by a Russian group claiming to be Americans?

WRIGHT: Yeah, I was actually caught off guard. It was Friday, and we were doing our last-minute preparation for one of our events. And I got a call from the group ThinkProgress about it. And I just had to laugh 'cause it blew my mind. You know, you're a little bit flattered but quite disturbed at the same time because there are so many people that are chasing this Russian collusion narrative. And then we're just, you know, thinking about, well, how is that going to negatively affect us?

SHAPIRO: I also wonder whether it makes you doubt your own social media impact. If this group of Russians had a quarter-million followers, do you wonder about whether your own support is all actually coming from people who are who they say they are?

WRIGHT: Well, no. Actually, we've got a good handle on that because all of our social media growth - I'm the webmaster, by the way - all of our growth was organic prior to any of this. And we did not see any metrics change from what they did.

SHAPIRO: Had you heard of this group, Heart of Texas, which encourages Texas to secede from the U.S.?

WRIGHT: Absolutely not. I - actually, Friday was the first time I've ever heard of them. And it was actually a photo taken by Breitbart Texas. And, you know, there was an article. And they took pieces of the article and put some of their own messaging in there.

SHAPIRO: It says, Dwayne Wright extremely ably visualized what is on the mind of so many American citizens. What do you think?

WRIGHT: I wouldn't have written it that way (laughter). And I noticed there was some words that were misspelled at the bottom. I believe build was misspelled. To me, it just rang that it was not of this area, you know?

SHAPIRO: There are aspects of this that are easy to kind of laugh at and make fun of, but intelligence agencies say Russians are trying to inflame divisions in American society and this was part of a widespread, coordinated campaign. Do you worry that your photo is helping a foreign country undermine American democracy?

WRIGHT: Well, if that's the case, then obviously I'm not a proponent of that. I think it's sad that they feel like they need to interfere in our elections. And in a way, it tarnishes our message because the media narrative is that the Russians are trying to create discord in our country. Well, if they're aligning with the message that we're using, of course that's disconcerting to us.

SHAPIRO: I wonder, in San Jacinto County, Texas, where you are, how are people responding to the fact that your photo appeared on this Facebook page from a Russian group?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, it's funny. We had our major annual fundraiser Saturday. So when I was onstage, I spoke to people about what happened.

SHAPIRO: Oh, really?

WRIGHT: Oh, yeah. They were shocked and amazed. You know, in a way, it was kind of awesome that this little, tiny county is the one that is being - one of the ones that's being chosen to be plagiarized. And so actually, everybody thought it was funny.

SHAPIRO: Dwayne Wright, chairman of the San Jacinto Republican Party near Houston, Texas, thank you for joining us today.

WRIGHT: Well, thanks for calling, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.