Speed Reads

the bots are coming

Russian bots began working to divide Americans over gun control an hour after the Parkland shooting

Russian bots took advantage of America's divisions over gun control and the Second Amendment within an hour of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last week, The New York Times reports.

After initial reports of the attack, hundreds of posts from Twitter accounts linked to Russia ignited rumors that the suspected gunman, Nikolas Cruz, had Googled Arabic phrases before the attack. The accounts also jumped on hashtags like #Parklandshooting, #AR15, and #NRA while other bots pushed for #guncontrolnow and #gunreformnow. "This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this," explained New Knowledge's Jonathon Morgan, who works to track disinformation campaigns. "The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically."

The bots used similar tactics during the presidential election, pushing support for Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders and stoking Islamophobia and debates over immigration. The strategy appears to involve nudging ideas that would otherwise remain on the fringes "slightly more mainstream," Morgan added.

The Russia-linked accounts that jumped on the Parkland shooting have since moved on to the hashtag #falseflag, pushing a conspiracy theory that the shooting never took place. 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," explained media professor Karen North. "It just heightens that frustration and anger."