An image of a Russian hacker.

Russian bots are filling Facebook with pro-gun posts after the Parkland shooting

The Parkland school shooting has reignited the debate over the United States' Second Amendment. On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 19-year-old former student Nicholas Cruz, a self-styled "professional school shooter", killed 17 people and seriously injured a further 15 with an AR-15 style rifle. This makes the Parkland school shooting the worst American mass shooting of 2018 so far, and one of the worst mass school shootings in history, behind the Virginia Tech Massacre and the Sandy Hook Incident.

The response to the tragedy, from Congressmen and pundits, activists and victims, has been seismic and divided. Yet despite the bloodshed and furore, many remain cynical about the possibility of reform. In the aftermath of the spree, President Trump offered his condolences to those affected, taking time out to visit those still in the hospital and writing: "no child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school". But for some, this just isn't enough.

Meanwhile, survivors have organised the activist group Never Again MSD, and promoted the hashtag #NeverAgain to lobby for firearm restrictions, as well as vocally condemning lawmakers associated with the National Rifle Association. More widely, the debate over guns has been spread across all social platforms by an increasingly partisan public. However, new evidence suggests that foreign powers are interfering with the issue, employing the same methods as those used to hinder the 2016 presidential election.

Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez. Credit: Getty

According to a report by The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a national security advocacy group created to combat Russian hackers, Russian bots are already spreading fake news stories on Twitter in order to sow further division among the American populace. In addition to this, Russian-registered accounts are also attempting to spread paranoid conspiracy theories, like those claiming that the shooting was a false flag operation orchestrated by the US government to give it due justification to seize weapons from its citizens. These bots are semi-automated or automated accounts on Twitter, which masquerade as real people in order to covertly endorse politically polarising content in the name of spreading misinformation.

Hamilton 68, a website created by the ASD designed to monitor the activity of Russians engaged in the creation of black propaganda online, determined that the activity of Twitter bots massively increased posts related to the shooting spree in the 48 hours following the incident, and noted that by using hashtags such as "#Falseflag", "#fbi", "#gunreformnow", "#fbigate", and "#parklandschoolshooting", Russian agents have managed to perpetuate a state of disunity on social media.

Bret Schafer, a research analyst affiliated with the ASD, claims that a similar spike in relevant posts from Russian bots occurred after the shooting in Las Vegas, when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival and killed 58 people.

A family grieves by the memorial tributes for the Parkland School shooting. Credit: Getty

"Because of the politicised nature of [the hashtags], they are perfect fodder to take an extreme position and start spreading memes that have a very distinct political position on gun control," Schafer stated in an interview with Wired. "That allows them to then push content that is more directly related to the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda ... don’t think the Kremlin cares one way or another whether we enact stricter gun control laws. It's just being used as bait."

Another bot-tracking site has corroborated the findings of the ASD., (which is operated by Robhat Labs) has found that all but one of the top two-word phrases used since the incident, by around 1,500 political propaganda bots were connected to the shooting: "gun control," "Nikolas Cruz," "school shooting," "school shooter" and "fake news."

Using natural-language-processing, a kind of computational-linguistic analysis, researchers were able to create an algorithm to successfully identify distinguishing patterns between bots versus normal users. Furthermore, noted that: "these bots are not just associated with just one political ideology," and that tools such as TweetDeck give malicious users the power to manage multiple Twitter accounts simultaneously and thereby build a large bot network

Christo Grozev, a senior researcher at New Bulgarian University’s Risk Management Lab, has spent the past four years closely observing around 400 troll Twitter accounts which were revealed to be malicious in a 2014 leak, and Grozev agrees with Schafer that the accounts will latch themselves to any hot-button topic and attempt to encourage outrage. Although the personas adopted by the bot accounts have changed over time, the majority have currently French and Spanish/Catalan identities in order to deflect attention away from their Russian origins.

Grozev stated: "It is not in any way an ideological preference for Russia to have less gun control in the US. It is, however, the perfect divisive cause ... Such hashtags serve mostly as bait: they serve to attract 'opposing view' readers, which results in explosive and discordant online mutual shouting - in place of any reasonable debate, which would not be in the interest of Russia."

The intentional interference in US politics by Russian nationals was confirmed on February 17, when Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for meddling in the US presidential election in 2016; specifically implicating the organisation Internet Research Agency in various cyber crimes. Commenting on the indictment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said: "The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general."

Parkland school shooting perpetrator Nikolas Jacob Cruz. Credit: Getty

On February 17, survivors gathered at an anti-gun rally outside the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. There, student Emma Gonzales made an impassioned speech to the listening crowd: "If the President wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a 'terrible tragedy', I'm going to happily ask him how much money he received from the NRA."

Her powerful statement has already gone viral on social media, and yet it's somewhat dispiriting to think that even now her words are most likely being manipulated by Twitter bots, who will twist her statement, take it out of context, and retweet nonsense over and over again. All we can do can do in the face of this is try to remain unbiased, to question our sources of information, and be on the lookout for Twitter accounts that seem less than human.