Russia-linked social media accounts took advantage of Wednesday's school shooting in Florida, flooding platforms with tweets and hashtags related to the incident, which left 17 people dead and many more wounded.
Hamilton 68, a website created by Alliance for Securing Democracy, tracks Twitter activity from accounts it has identified as linked to Russian influence campaigns. As of morning, shooting-related terms dominated the site’s trending hashtags and topics, including Parkland, guncontrolnow, Florida, guncontrol, and Nikolas Cruz, the name of the alleged shooter. Popular trending topics among the bot network include shooter, NRA, shooting, Nikolas, Florida, and teacher.
RoBhat Labs' Botcheck.me, which tracks 1500 political propaganda bots, noted that all of the top two-word phrases in the 24 hours following the shooting were related to the incident, and the top hashtags from that period included Parkland, guncontrol, and guncontrolnow.
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,” [Ash Bhat, one of the project’s creators] says. Once a hashtag is widely adopted by real users, it’s difficult for Twitter to police, Bhat says.
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.
Other tactics include sowing outright false information:
Despite all the talk about Russian Twitter bots and trolls - and fake news in general - Americans are still encountering, interacting with, and spreading content from such accounts. And that means Russia is still succeeding to some degree in its goal to promote disunity.