Each new breaking news situation is an opportunity for trolls to grab attention, provoke emotions, and spread propaganda. The Russian government knows this. Fake-news manufacturing teenagers in Macedonia know this. Twitter bot creators know this. And thanks to data-gathering operations from groups like Alliance for Securing Democracy and RoBhat Labs, the world knows this.
In the wake of Wednesday’s Parkland, Florida school shooting, which resulted in 17 deaths, troll and bot-tracking sites reported an immediate uptick in related tweets from political propaganda bots and Russia-linked Twitter accounts. Hamilton 68, a website created by Alliance for Securing Democracy, tracks Twitter activity from accounts it has identified to be linked to Russian influence campaigns. As of Thursday morning, shooting-related terms dominated the site’s trending hashtags and topics, including Parkland, guncontrolnow, Florida, guncontrol, and Nicholas Cruz, the name of the alleged shooter. Popular trending topics among the bot network include shooter, NRA, shooting, Nicholas, Florida, and teacher.
On RoBhat Labs’ Botcheck.me, a website created by two Berkeley students to track 1500 political propaganda bots, all of the top two-word phrases used in the last 24 hours—excluding President Trump’s name—are related to the tragedy: School shooting, gun control, high school, Florida school. The top hashtags from the last 24 hours include Parkland, guncontrol, and guncontrolnow.
Ash Bhat, one of the project’s creators, says the bots are able to respond quickly to breaking news because they’re ultimately controlled by humans. He would not speculate on who is behind the bots that RoBhat Labs tracks. In some cases, the bot creators come up with hashtags, and use their bots to amplify them until they’re adopted by human users. “Over time the hashtag moves out of the bot network to the general public,” he says. Once a hashtag is widely adopted by real users, it’s difficult for Twitter to police, Bhat says. RoBhat Labs’ data shows this happened with the hashtag MemoDay, which bubbled up when House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes’ controversial memo was released.
In other cases, the bots jump on existing hashtags to take control of the conversation and amplify a message. That’s likely what is happening with the Parkland shooting and the hashtag guncontrolnow, Bhat says.
‘Over time the hashtag moves out of the bot network to the general public.’
Ash Bhat, RoBhat Labs
While RoBhat Labs tracks general political bots, Hamilton 68 focuses specifically on those linked to the Russian government. According to the group’s data, the top link shared by Russia-linked accounts in the last 48 hours is a 2014 Politifact article that looks critically at a statistic cited by pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. Twitter accounts tracked by the group have used the old link to try to debunk today’s stats about the frequency of school shootings.
Another top link shared by the network covers the “deranged” Instagram account of the shooter, showing images of him holding guns and knives, wearing army hats, and a screenshot of a Google search of the phrase “Allahu Akbar.” Characterizing shooters as deranged lone wolves with potential terrorist connections is a popular strategy of pro-gun groups because of the implication that new gun laws could not have prevented their actions. On Thursday President Trump tweeted as much: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior.”
Meanwhile, some accounts with large bot followings are already spreading misinformation about the shooter’s ties to far-left group Antifa, even though the Associated Press reported that he was a member of a local white nationalist group. The Twitter account Education4Libs, which RoBhat Labs shows is one among the top accounts tweeted at by bots, is among the prominent accounts spread the idea:
Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says the spike in shooting-related posts from Russia-linked bots is in line with what his group observed after last year’s shootings in Las Vegas and Texas. The Russia-linked bots weigh in on any attention-grabbing news event, but seize on shootings particularly. “Because of the politicized nature of them, they are perfect fodder to take an extreme position and start spreading memes that have a very distinct political position on gun control,” he says.
‘I don’t think the Kremlin cares one way or another whether we enact stricter gun control laws.’
Bret Schafer, Alliance for Securing Democracy
The use of pro-gun control hashtags like #guncontrolnow along with the spread of anti-gun control links like the Politifact article seem to show the Russian strategy of promoting discord on both sides of a debate. Russian-linked Twitter accounts have attempted to spread confusion and angst on topics ranging from police violence against black people, to NFL player protests, to Al Franken’s sexual misconduct accusations. (On other topics, like special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election, the bots have worked in concert to further the Kremlin’s agenda.)
But in this case, Schafer suspects the use of pro-gun control hashtags like #guncontrolnow are being used sarcastically, particularly since they’re often paired with the anti-gun control links. Since the Twitter accounts Hamilton 68 tracks often target right-wing audiences, he believes the trolls are using the message to attract more eyeballs. “That allows them to then push content that is more directly related to the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda” such as the Nunes memo, he says. “I don’t think the Kremlin cares one way or another whether we enact stricter gun control laws,” he adds. “It’s just being used as bait, basically.”
Public awareness that antagonistic bots flood the Twitter debate hasn’t stopped them from achieving their goals of ratcheting up the vitriol—even amid a live tragedy like the Parkland shooting. The goal, after all, isn’t to help one side or the other of the gun control debate win. It’s to amplify the loudest voices in that fight, deepening the divisions between us.