By Grace Donnelly
February 20, 2018

Just an hour after the news of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida broke last week, Twitter bots took up the gun control debate.

Using hashtags like #guncontrolnow, #Parklandshooting, and #gunreformnow, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia, which had been focused earlier in the day on the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, posted hundreds of tweets about gun laws following the mass shooting.

The bots also used terms like Nikolas — the name of the shooter who killed 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14 — NRA, shooter, Florida, and teacher. The day after the incident, Twitter’s trending hashtags and topics were dominated by shooting-related terms, according to Wired.

Troll and bot-tracking sites, like Hamilton 68, which was created by Alliance for Securing Democracy, reported an immediate uptick in activity from accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns.

“This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this,” Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a company that tracks online disinformation campaigns, told the New York Times. “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”

Research sites that track Twitter activity from Russian-linked accounts look for indicators such as posting at an extremely high volume or sharing content that matches hundreds of other accounts.

Some bot operators create hashtags and flood the platform until human users pick them up, while others seize hashtags already being used to hijack the conversation. The top two-word phrase on Twitter the day after the shooting, excluding President Donald Trump’s name, was related to the attack, according to Wired.

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,” said Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told the New York Times. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all battling disinformation on their platforms and the companies have each announced new measures to help eliminate bots and moderate conversation.

Thirteen Russians were named in an indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller last week in the ongoing investigation into the country’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The 37-page document explained how the operatives used social media to further aggravate American division.

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