The congressman whose district spans the Magic Valley said Wednesday he would "closely monitor" reports a Facebook group created by Russian agents tried to organize an anti-refugee rally in Twin Falls, while one of the state's senators said it was "concerning, yet not surprising" and that he expects the use of social media to feature in the findings of the investigation into Russia's attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
"I am disturbed to learn that a foreign agent attempted to influence a narrative in Idaho," said U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "Luckily, this attempt appears to have had very little impact in our community. I will closely monitor this situation and hope that awareness of this incident can serve to prevent future issues like this."
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Russia has used similar tactics "numerous times in the past in the U.S. and other countries."
"The Senate Intelligence Committee has been and is continuing to investigate Russia's attempted interference in our 2016 elections, including their methods and means," Risch continued. "Their apparent use of social media will certainly be included in the investigation's findings. Since January, the committee has been gathering information and conducting interviews including interactions with social media platforms regarding Russian actions. However, until the investigations have concluded, I cannot comment on any potential next steps or findings."
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, pointed to Risch's statement.
The Daily Beast first reported Monday night that a Facebook group called "Secured Borders," which Facebook removed after it was identified in March 2017 as a creation of a St. Petersburg troll farm that pushes the Russian government line online, had created a rally called "Citizens before refugees" that was supposed to take place on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, at the City Council chambers in Twin Falls.
Russia was involved in numerous online efforts to disrupt the 2016 election and sway it in President Donald Trump's favor according to U.S. intelligence agencies. Facebook said a week ago that a Russian company linked to the Kremlin used fake accounts to buy $100,000 worth of political ads during the past two years, most of them on hot-button issues such as gun control, gay and transgender rights and immigration, and also that it had identified a further $50,000 in ads that it was less certain about but may have been bought by Russians.
However, news that Russians tried to organize a live event in Twin Falls is a new twist in the story. The attempt doesn't appear to have been successful -- city officials said Tuesday they didn't recall any such rally happening, and given the City Council chambers' location near the police station a large gathering likely wouldn't have passed unnoticed.
Their targeting of Twin Falls didn't come in a vacuum -- refugee resettlement had been a hot topic in the area since early 2015, attracting international press attention. The "Citizens before refugees" event came about two months after three refugee boys had been arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a 5-year-old girl, and at a time when anti-Islamic and anti-refugee activists and media were playing close attention to Twin Falls.