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Russia is meddling in US gun control debate with Twitter bots after FL shooting: report

February 20, 2018

After the Florida school shooting last week that took the lives of 17 people, Russian Twitter bots took to the social media platform to allegedly tweet about gun control.

Hundreds of posts were released on Twitter just one hour after the news broke about the Florida school shooting. The Twitter accounts allegedly have Russian ties and started tweeting with references the gun control debate in the U.S., The Hill reported.

The posts reportedly contained various hashtags, such as “guncontrolnow,” “gunreformnow” and “Parklandshooting.” The bots target contentious issues like race relations or guns. Any issue associated with extremist views is a ripe target.

Prior to the school shooting, the Russian bot tweets were focused on the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election.

Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a company that tracks online disinformation campaigns, said: “This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this. The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”

Russia is engaged in a disinformation campaign that uses weapons like conspiracy videos on YouTube, fake interest groups on Facebook, and armies of bot accounts that can hijack a number of topics on Twitter.

Last year, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, in conjunction with the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, created a website that tracks hundreds of Twitter accounts of human users and suspected bots that they have linked to a Russian influence campaign.

The researchers focused on Twitter accounts posting information that was from well-known Russian propaganda outlets. Automated bots can sometimes be identified by having an extremely high volume of posts or content that conspicuously matches hundreds of other accounts.

Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said: The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration. It just heightens that frustration and anger.”

The Twitter campaign about the Parkland shooting is an example of how Russian operatives are still at it.

Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said during a hearing this month on global threats to the United States: “We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks, but I believe, unfortunately, we still don’t have a comprehensive plan. What we’re seeing is a continuous assault by Russia to target and undermine our democratic institutions, and they’re going to keep coming at us.”

When the Russian bots tweeted with the hashtag “Parklandshooting,” they claimed that Nikolas Cruz, the accused shooter and former student at the high school, had searched for Arabic phrases on Google before the shooting.