Following last week’s school massacre in Parkland, Florida, which claimed 17 victims, thousands of tweets poured in using the trending hashtags #guncontrolnow and #ParklandShooting. They were not coming, as you would expect, from Americans sharing thoughts on the gun-rights debate; but from Russian-controlled bots seizing on the divisive issue, seeking to sow further civil rancor.
According to Botcheck.me, a tracking website, which follows 1500 propaganda bots on Twitter, the two most tweeted phrases from the Russian bots were “gun control” and “school shooting”. Botcheck.me employs machine learning to construct a statistical model using inputs such as date, frequency of tweets, bio description, follower numbers and other stats to determine whether the account is a bot or a person. The site has discerned that bots will promote certain hashtags over others.
The strategy to stir up emotional feelings in different elements of America echoes the recent findings in the indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, as part of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. “The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy,” Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the inquiry, said in a brief news conference. “We must not allow them to succeed.”
The way in which the Russian bots have seized on the tragic case of the Parkland shooting, using it to heighten civil discord, shows that the fight against them must continue; not to mention, the challenges that tech giants are facing in dealing with such propaganda, even after the problem has been identified.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy is also tracking Russian bots on Twitter and has built a website called Hamilton 68 to track the propaganda in real time. Hamilton 68 says “Common themes for amplification include content attacking the U.S. and Europe, conspiracy theories and disinformation”, adding, “Russian influence operations also frequently promote extremism and divisive politics in Western countries”.
Congress members and the public are concerned that such online meddling could take place again in the run up to the 2018 midterm elections. Intelligence agency leaders have also warned of the possibility.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his new year’s resolution was to fight these issues, including Russian interference. According to a report from Engadget, around 150M people on Facebook saw inflammatory posts created by the Russian-led Internet Research Agency. In response, Facebook launched a new tool which can tell you any fake Russian accounts you may have followed.
Last month, Twitter acknowledged in a blog post reviewing the 2016 U.S. Election that at least 1.4M people were exposed to Russian propaganda via its platform during that period, and said it was trying to prevent bot accounts from surfacing, but it wasn’t always possible to tell whether or not an account was Russian. It said it currently blocks around 450,000 suspicious log-ins a day using machine learning and automated processes to identify anomalous behavior. The Jack Dorsey led company also said it had told all the 1.4M people who had been exposed to Russian propaganda that this had happened, making good on a pledge it made to U.S. lawmakers probing Russia’s social media tactics.