Still At It: On Twitter, Russian Trolls Are Riling Up Americans Over Gun Violence and Gun Control

Alessandra Mondolfi yells, "No More" during a protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County Federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 17, 2018. (Brynn Anderson, AP)
Alessandra Mondolfi yells, “No More” during a protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County Federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 17, 2018. (Brynn Anderson, AP)

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.

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