The aftermath of one of the deadliest school shootings in the nation’s history in Parkland, Florida, this week saw a spike in Twitter activity of accounts linked to Russian disinformation campaigns. Hamilton 68, a website that tracks the Twitter activity of Russian-related accounts, reports that within 24 hours of the massacre, shooting-related terms dominated the site’s trending hashtags and topics, including Parkland, guncontrolnow and Nikolas Cruz, the alleged shooter’s name.
Two Berkeley students created Botcheck.me, which, like Hamilton 68, also tracks political propaganda bots. Within 24 hours of the shooting, the top two-word phrases and hashtags used by some 1,500 accounts Botcheck.me tracks were related to the tragedy – School shooting, high school and guncontrolnow were on the list.
It’s believed these automated accounts seize on existing hashtags to magnify their reach. The goal is to get adopted by actual users. Once adopted by everyday users, the hashtags become difficult to police.
According to Hamilton 68’s and Botcheck.me’s data the top link shared by the accounts is a 2014 Politifact article that challenges the notion of school shootings happening frequently. Another top link shared by the bots are of the Parkland shooter’s Instagram account, which shows images of him holding guns and knives and wearing army hats. There’s also a screenshot of a Google search of the phrase “Allahu Akbar.” Think links to the account are seemingly an attempt to portray the shooter as mentally ill.
The spike in shooting-related terms are consistent with the bots’ past behavior. Hamilton 68 and Botcheck.me noticed the same type of activity in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting last year.
The goal of the bots doesn’t seem to be to advance any agenda over another. It seems to simply be to amplify the loudest voices and deepen divisions in U.S. society.