After School Shootings, Russian Bots Hijacked Gun Debate

'The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 20, 2018 5:00 AM CST
Updated Feb 20, 2018 6:42 AM CST
Russian Bots Sought to Sow Division After School Shooting
In a Feb. 14, 2018, photo, students hold their hands in the air as they're evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.   (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, File)

For Russia-linked Twitter accounts and bots linked to Russian propaganda campaigns, last week's horrific school shooting in Florida was just another opportunity to sow division among Americans, security researchers say. Within an hour of the shooting, hundreds of automated Twitter accounts with suspected Russian links began sending out tweets with hashtags like #NRA and #guncontrolnow, seeking to spread what analysts call "divisive propaganda" on both sides of the issue, the New York Times reports. "This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this," says Jonathon Morgan at New Knowledge, a firm that tries to track disinformation campaigns. "The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically."

After a couple of days, some bots switched to the #falseflag hashtag, pushing theories that the Parkland shooting was a government conspiracy. Analysts say that along with race relations, gun control is a favorite target of disinformation campaigns seeking to spread confusion and anger. Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, tells Wired that similar spikes in activity were seen after last year's mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas. "I don't think the Kremlin cares one way or another whether we enact stricter gun control laws," he says. "It's just being used as bait, basically." He says most of the bots his group tracks target right-wing audiences, and he believes the #guncontrolnow hashtag was being used sarcastically. (President Trump says he supports beefing up the background check system.)

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