An organization that monitors Russian trolling has spotted a peculiar similarity between certain types of social media postings that went up immediately after the Oct. 1 Las Vegas festival shootings and again after last week’s shootings at a school in Parkland, Fla.
The pattern: A day after the tragedy, the trolls tweet on all sides of the gun control debate. A day later, they push conspiracy theories.
It’s a formula designed to stir up emotions over mass violence and gun laws, and more broadly to foment anger and exasperation over the U.S. political system.
“The purpose is to stoke tensions,” said Bret Schafer of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is financing researchers following 600 or so Twitter accounts suspected of being operated by Russian “trolls” — pro-Kremlin mouthpieces aiming to encourage discord in the United States.
“It is also bait to attract a larger following from American users by talking about issues that we care about.”
The 600 accounts monitored by the project known as Hamilton 68 put out an average of 20,000 tweets a day, Schafer said, and they often focus on hot topics that divide Americans.
“Russia’s role is to sort of boost the signals of these fringe-y conspiracy theories and just circulate them a bit wider,” said Schafer, whose group is part of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The trolling activity that Hamilton 68 follows appears to be similar to — but not the same as — the operation identified by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in a Feb. 16 indictment of 13 Russians and three companies. It describes an elaborate, St. Petersburg-based operation, known as the Internet Research Agency, where the Russian troll activity has been centered.
The indictment alleges that several Russians — apparently including one who is cooperating with the FBI — gathered intelligence about the U.S. political landscape on the ground. Then “specialists” created social media accounts in the names of Americans whose identities they stole, or by creating fictitious personas, and began posting inflammatory content on Twitter, Facebook or Google.
“Specialists were directed to create ‘political intensity’ through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements,” the indictment says. The indicted Russians “also regularly evaluated the content posted by specialists … to ensure they appeared authentic – as if operated by U.S. persons.”
The Russian-origin Twitter accounts followed by Hamilton 68 appear to largely focus on the U.S. political right, although Schafer said other Russian troll farms have the U.S. political left as an audience. All don identities of U.S. persons and tweet somewhat in sync.
There is coordination between the accounts.
Bret Schafer, Alliance for Securing Democracy
“There is coordination between the accounts,” Schafer said. “When one message comes out, usually several of our accounts hop on that message in a rather short time.”
A pattern emerged after both the Oct. 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, in which a gunman with assault-like rifles killed 58 concert goers and wounded 851 others by spraying bullets from an upper floor of a high-rise hotel, and the Feb. 14 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, in which 17 people were killed, he said.
“On the first day, it was mainly just breaking news, trending hashtags, things like #shooter and #parkland, and just sort of innocuous terms were being thrown around,” Schafer said. “By day two, we jumped into the gun control debate. And by day three, we had waded into these conspiracy theories. It was very, very similar to what we saw after Vegas.”
The Twitter trolls retweeted posts from several political angles, a sign that Schafer said may indicate that “the Kremlin clearly doesn’t care about any specific policy outcome.”
A former senior CIA operations officer who worked a wide range of foreign intelligence targets, Glenn Carle, said it is little surprise that Russian trolls would focus on gun control.
It’s a sensitive, raw wound or point in American society, so ‘Let’s poke at it.’”
Glenn Carle, former CIA operations officer
“It’s a sensitive, raw wound or point in American society, so ‘Let’s poke at it,’” Carle said, adding that the Kremlin wants Americans to feel exasperated by the dysfunction of U.S. government.
“The Russians are acting to foment discord in our society, in our institutions,” he said.
A Russia scholar at Georgetown University, Angela Stent, said efforts by the Kremlin to meddle abroad have a long history, dating to the former Soviet Union’s support for the peace and anti-nuclear movements in Europe and Moscow’s more recent anger over U.S. support for democratic revolutions in nations on Russia’s periphery, such as Georgia and Ukraine, and in Moscow itself in late 2011. Then the United States imposed sanctions on Russia because of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Now is payback time.
“It’s a pattern of exploiting wherever they can the divisions in U.S. society and making Americans question facts, question their own government and set them against each other,” Stent said. “We’re set against each other anyway, but again (they are) exacerbating that because that’s a way they have of retaliating against the West.”
Russian Twitter brigades are fast off the mark, another expert said.
They are “ready to turn around a quick campaign” after nearly any news event, whether natural disaster, mass shooting or a flashpoint involving guns, said Philip N. Howard, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute in Britain.
The goal is to rile people up, and it’s easier to do that if there’s a hot-button issue.
Philip N. Howard, Oxford Internet Institute
“The goal is to rile people up, and it’s easier to do that if there’s a hot-button issue like immigration, or race relations or gun rights,” Howard said.
Twitter is only one outlet in a social media universe that includes YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram in an internet ecosystem that is largely open and free, even for Russian propaganda, experts said.
“We’ve seen examples of activity on Tumblr, YouTube and Instagram,” Howard said.
A Columbia University expert who has spent two years researching politics-related activity on social media said people prone to extremist views are feeding the cyberspace debate.
“It feels like the kinds of nefarious hackers that just want to cause trouble have now assembled themselves into the far right,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “A lot of this really is to do damage, or for power purposes, just to screw up people’s information environment and get them to distrust anything.”
Schafer said Russian troll accounts frequently share links to more credible news sources in the immediate aftermath of a major event, then “the next day they tend to link to content from hyper-partisan or questionable sources.”
Some fake Russian personas seek to build credibility among their followers, he said, mirroring broader discussion from various points of view.
“Then, when they have built credibility within a certain social network by taking a popular, partisan position on an American issue, they can use that platform to talk about issues that the Kremlin does care about,” Schafer said.
“For instance,” he said, “with all the focus on hashtags connected to divisive issues in America, the No. 1 hashtag used over the past six months within our network has been #Syria,” where U.S. troops are fighting alongside opposition rebels while Russian troops are supporting the Iran-backed regime.