Russian Bot Manipulation Isn’t Limited to the 2016 Election

Indictments continue to rain down from the ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election — with 13 Russians and three Russian organizations charged with conspiracy to impede the democratic process.

Of those Russian organizations involved, Internet Research Agency presents the most clear example of how the country used and manipulated the American electorate — especially supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — to swing the election in their favor. This effort primarily took place through the use of Facebook, Twitter and masses of “bot” accounts meant to approximate a groundswell of grassroots support.

But that’s not the only place where bots are influencing and driving opinion — and sowing discord — in the U.S. social media landscape. No, bots are in the middle of all of our major debates right now, and they’re trying to drive the country even further apart.

Organizing against gun restrictions

It only took a few hours after the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, for fake accounts to begin pushing social media messages meant to stop any potential talk about future gun restrictions in the wake of the school shooting. Soon after the event, Wired reported:

According to [Hamilton 68- a project tracking Russian bot accounts] 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.”

The goal here is clear: turn the conversation to mental health issues or terrorism in order to create a “lone wolf” scenario in which gun restrictions would seem less necessary.

Stoking racism in Missouri

There are more than enough real racial issues in the United States, without bots creating their own crisis. But in Columbia, Missouri, fake social media accounts created and promoted a tweet claiming that police and the KKK marched together and beat a young black man — a tweet that caught like wildfire.

Newsweek reports:

User @Fanfan1911, [Researcher and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jarred] Prier said, was a Russian bot that utilized the #PrayForMizzou hashtag to evade Twitter algorithms meant to catch bots and to garner retweets from real users monitoring the hashtag. About 70 bots automatically retweeted the tweet, leading to thousands of related tweets within minutes, the report found. “The image and the narrative were part of a larger plot to spread fear and distrust,” Prier said. “Russians trolls were able to spread the information because of an underlying fear and an existing narrative that they were able to exploit.”

Attacking and undermining Mark Warner and the Russia investigation

Of course, the Russian bots would be most interested in undermining the investigation into Russian election influence, which is why they pushed so hard when it was disclosed that Senator Mark Warner — a Virginia Democrat at the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Trump’s Russia connections — traded text messages with a Russian contact in an attempt to contact Christopher Steele, of the infamous “Steele Memo.” The texts were benign and had already been disclosed, but that didn’t stop President Donald Trump — and hundreds of Russian bot accounts — from tweeting about it.

Mother Jones reports:

Trump wasn’t the only one promoting the story to undercut the Senate’s Russia probe. So too were a horde of Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence efforts. According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 Dashboard, which tracks such activity, automated accounts, or bots, that amplify Russian messaging efforts, as well as the accounts of real pro-Russian users, began tweeting about “Warner” and “Mark Warner” on Thursday night. On Friday afternoon, the words remained by far the most popular trending topic among the 600 accounts the group keeps an eye on.

#Releasethememo

Why was there so much political pressure to get the GOP memo on potential problems and biases inside the FBI out into the public eye, when the Democratic version has barely been discussed? Well, besides utter hypocrisy, you can also blame the bots.

Molly K. McKew, an expert on information warfare at Politico, writes:

Online data analysts said many accounts used to promote the hashtag were recently created, with more being created and disappearing after the hashtag appeared. Thousands still had the default profile photos. CNN’s analysis found that hundreds of accounts created after the hashtag first appeared were fueling the viral trend. Cross-reference this analysis and inputs from things like the Hamilton68 dashboard, and you can see #releasethememo is carried forward by automated accounts overnight after it begins to trend. It continued to do so from its appearance until the memo was released. The volume and noise matter—and so does the targeting.

Blame-gaming the government shutdown — and potentially killing DACA to boot

Why did the Democrats have to cave on DACA and abandon the DREAMers during the last budget negotiation, even though they knew it may be their last chance at any leverage in the battle? It was “public” pressure that forced Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to push for a deal, attempting to avoid a “Schumer Shutdown.” And it was Russian bots that made the “Schumer Shutdown” talking point gain steam to start.

Offering a chart that showed that the hashtag had outpaced even #releasethememo, the Huffington Post reported:

#SchumerShutdown ― the hashtag that GOP leaders and the White House are using to accuse Democrats of causing the shutdown ― on Sunday night became the top trending hashtag being promoted by Russian bots and trolls on Twitter, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project led by former top national security officials from both parties.

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan/Flickr

109 comments

Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckingham4 months ago

My position is the Democrats and Republicans at this moment in time are not doing anything productive for the Country. They are wasting the publics time by pursuing the supposed Russian troll interference with the USA election when it would be better to change the 2 party system, stop attack ads and trolling the public, stop fighting amongst one another and stand on issues that are based in reality and really do matter to health and vitality.

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Rhoberta E
Rhoberta E4 months ago

Darlene Buckingham
Your posts are becoming more and more like brian's. Most intelligent people KNOW what the concerns are in ANY country but to drivel on about what is wrong with this party and that party and who did what in 2016 is counterproductive.
What are we as individuals actually DOING now.
You can speak eloquently until the cows come home but action is what is needed as each adult with a vote or a brain.
Do you just post like brian ?

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Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckingham4 months ago

The fact that there is so much misinformation and abuse of knowledge is a leading factor in the decline of health and vitality in prosperous Countries. The public is kept so busy earning a living and feeding their families that they have to depend on politicians, corporations to do the right thing and unfortunately, politicians and corporations are taking advantage of others to the detriment of all. Misinformation is causing mental illness and unbalances. How is it the USA has the most mentally ill people in the world and spends billions of dollars on psychotropic drugs and supposedly the most advanced Country? There is something wrong with this picture. Politicians and corporations are not helping by playing on people's fears rather than people's strengths. The USA is a hard lesson on what happens when the truth and what makes life thrive is not honoured by politicians and corporations and decisions made accordingly. Blaming the Russians is not going to solve anything.

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Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckingham4 months ago

Rhoberta: My point is about the right brain/left brain imbalance that politicians appeal to so as to divide and distract from the real issues. If individuals were able to think for themselves they would not have fallen prey to Russian bots/trolls nor to political rhetoric. Unfortunately, the public is being trolled by political candidates and people put their trust in them. Now that this issue is out in the open about trolls and their influence on people, educating people of why they fall prey to trolls is important. The Republicans and Democrats are being disingenuous because they use the same tactics to influence people to vote for them as the Russian trolls used. Many people take a job to support their family, knowing and justifying the harm they are causing, thinking it is a greater good to take care of their family. The monetary system, the political system and educational systems have to be changed to teach people more about real issues that affect them then fight about Clinton and Trump, for example. Many people also believe if they have money they can buy their way out of anything. It is essential at this time to learn about psychology, see how it is used against men and women and start focusing on the real issues that are undermining health and vitality.

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Rhoberta E
Rhoberta E4 months ago

Darlene Buckingham
I do wish you would stop calling news media trolls. In the past we received our information from newspapers and radio then television and now our computers and smartphones.
We as INDIVIDUALS need to be able to think for ourselves and ferret out the information WE believe to be true. Not ALL news sources are disseminating false stories and I have to believe that not ALL politicians do not have the host country's best interest at heart.
If you continue to let that be the only way YOU think, then the conclusion will be that the whole country is crooked and suspect. I think that there is hope. Politicians have families too and hopefully want the best for them.
An example of that way of thinking from MY POV is a person seeking treatment for cancer and the doctor and the whole team say "Well, you're going to die anyway so why bother treating you". We CAN'T always see the glass half empty.

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Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckingham4 months ago

Heather: If only more people would start thinking for themselves, learn about psychology, stop supporting the 2 party system based on left brain/ right brain imbalances and stop accepting trolls aka politicians/media as a source of information. It is unfortunate that politicians/media have sold out to corporations and then try to blame the Russians. Russian politicians are of course doing the same thing and trolling their own people as well. It will be a welcome day when the issues facing humanity and the future of Planet Earth are spoken of in ways that do reflect reality and solutions found that create a better world for all people.

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heather g
heather g4 months ago

Thank you, Darlene and Rhoberta for your pertinent contribution on this subject. Unfortunately, not everyone has been taught how to think for themselves.

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Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckingham4 months ago

Rhoberta: You have described the USA to a tee. The USA political system is based on the art of fear, division, apathy and ignorance. The USA is no better than Russia and all political parties. The USA is becoming more visible, that is all and I am sure many are seeing that Canada is also perpetrating crimes against humanity and the environment. Canada has participated in NATO air strikes killing thousands of people and Canada is allowing GMOs as one example of the harmful decisions that Canda is participating in. If you have studied psychology then you understand that the 2 party system uses this knowledge to keep people fighting over the parties/personalities and ignore the real issues. Our health and environment are being attacked and the media is filled with troll stories rather than what is really happening.

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Rhoberta E
Rhoberta E4 months ago

Darlene Buckingham
What I see happening in the world is that we have become complacent. Russian actually ISN'T the problem. It's the countries that ALLOW Russia to infringe on the standards, beliefs and general democracy of that country.
Russia does it because they can, have perfected the art of fear, division and the apathy of some.
I'm glad to hear that you are working in your community . We need to start at home and be aware of OUR global picture and what may happen to change what we hold dear in Canada.
What Russia has done to cause such chaos in the US was slow and insidious. Politics is big money and control.
BTW, I actually DO know about right brain / left bran . I took years of Psychology and Sociology with my education.

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Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckingham4 months ago

I know this is asking a lot but what are the consequences if humanity does not make choices from the perspective of LIFE FIRST, not make America Great Again. This type of thinking will keep humanity at each other's throats, while children get sicker and the envrionment degrades. It is up to us to see that does not happen and do whatever we can to become educated men and women and working for the better of humanity, not just personal agendas of power and wealth. This is the big picture and then the small steps taken to achieve this vision of a better world. I continually write, for example about the use of glyphosate which is criminal and harming our environment and our health. Fighting about political candidates does not change a thing. Standing for issues is what will help to change the system. Attack ads and trolling the public is not acceptable! Blaming the Russians for the American election is ludicrous and the public has to realize this and Say NO!

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