SAN FRANCISCO — One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.
The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting....
“This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this,” said Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a company that tracks online disinformation campaigns. “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”
One of the most divisive issues in the nation is how to handle guns, pitting Second Amendment advocates against proponents of gun control. And the messages from these automated accounts, or bots, were designed to widen the divide and make compromise even more difficult.
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. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”
When the Russian bots jumped on the hashtag #Parklandshooting — initially created to spread news of the shooting — they quickly stoked tensions. Exploiting the issue of mental illness in the gun control debate, they propagated the notion that Nikolas Cruz, the suspected gunman, was a mentally ill “lone killer.
The bots target a contentious issue like race relations or guns. They stir the pot, often animating both sides and creating public doubt in institutions like the police or media. Any issue associated with extremist views is a ripe target.
The goal is to push fringe ideas into the “slightly more mainstream,”
After my post on Sunday calling Education Reform out as the root cause for these shootings, I realized -and was politely reminded- that literally no one else was making this same claim. I have to agree. I am the only person I know who feels that our collective response should not be to do something that is deeply opposed by one third of the nation (that's the amount of people who own or like guns). These are people who teach and who send their kids to public schools as well.
But I think the reason that I'm the only person here making this claim starts with the realization that we, at least we progressives on the left, have stopped noticing the things that divide us a city or a state or even a country. So that when "we" "take a stand", we are invariably taking a stand against 120 million Americans.
It's not that we don't pay attention to what divides us. It's that we have stopped noticing. Or maybe we have just stopped caring to pay attention.
Well, the Russians haven't.