Following the data breach that allowed Cambridge Analytica, a strategic communications firm hired by Donald Trump, to use information harvested from 50 million Facebook users to bolster Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, American citizens are more concerned than ever about the impact social media can have on politics. Research showing that Russian bots had a sizeable social media presence during the 2016 presidential campaign only further justifies such concerns.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller must agree; last month, his office charged a number of Russian nationals with interfering with U.S. elections, and Twitter has since performed an overnight purge of Russian bots, deleting an undisclosed number of accounts and angering conservatives — and President Trump — in the process.
So, what have Russian bots done to the United States? Here are 5 incidents — from riots in the streets to fake political protests — that Russian bots reportedly had a hand in causing.
1. Stirred Unrest In Milwaukee
In August 2016, riots erupted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin after police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was acquitted of homicide charges after fatally shooting Sylville Smith, who had been attempting to flee from a traffic stop. Following the verdict, angry residents began rioting in the streets, and some of the racial tension in the city was spurred on by Russia-linked Twitter accounts, The Wisconsin State Journal reports. The accounts reportedly posted over 30 tweets and were retweeted more than 5,000 times during the nights of rioting.
“These photos are not from Iraq ... This is Obama’s America! #Milwaukee,” read one tweet. The tweets were reportedly intended to increase the popularity of presidential candidate Donald Trump, the Journal Sentinel reports, as well as to help a primary challenger to U.S. Speaker Paul Ryan.
2. Stoked Outrage Following The Parkland School Shooting
Following the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead, Russian-linked Twitter accounts reportedly flooded the site using popular hashtags like #parkland, #guncontrolnow and #florida, NBC News reports. According to data collected by Hamilton 68, a dashboard created by the Alliance for Securing Democracy to track Russian influence operations on Twitter, some of the tweets called for gun reform, while other messages were pro-guns. According to experts interviewed by NBC News, it’s not uncommon for propagandists to create accounts on every side of an issue and take advantage of popular events in order to spread confusion and cause division.
3. Created Fake Facebook Events
During the two congressional panels investigating Russia’s election interference, Facebook revealed that Russian-linked accounts created 129 fake Facebook events between 2015 and 2017, Newsweek reports. The events were seen by 300,000 Facebook users, with 62,500 users RSVP’ing and 25,800 users expressing interest in attending. The different events — like "Save Islamic Knowledge" and "Stop Islamization of Texas" — promoted a variety of political views, presumably to foster political divisiveness.
4. Fueled Racial Tension In Missouri
Racial tension at the University of Missouri reached new heights in 2015, after a series of protests and strikes led to the resignation of university president Tim Wolfe, Newsweek reports. Then, when #PrayForMizzou began trending in November, a tweet suggesting that police officers were marching with the Klu Klux Klan and had injured a black child spread like wildfire on Twitter.
“The cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother! Watch out!” read the original tweet, posted alongside a photo of an injured child.
Though the tweet was later found to have actually been posted by a Russian bot, the damage had already been done. National news outlets rushed to cover the violence — like stabbings and even shootings - fake accounts claimed were taking place on campus. And it all started because of a tweet that turned out to be fake, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jarred Prier confirmed in a Strategic Studies Quarterly article.
5. Tried To Influence The Plot Of Blockbuster Films
Do Russian bots have a vested interest in a Star Wars character? According to Film School Rejects, during Anthony Wonke’s documentary The Director and the Jedi, trilogy director Rian Johnson revealed that Russian bots had tried to use their power for an extremely unexpected reason: to demand that General Hux not be killed off in the films. They did so by using the bashtag #HuxLive and flooding Johnson’s mentions.
“It’s amazing,” Johnson remarked. “There’s a coordinated effort by these Russian accounts. Hundreds of them.”
6. Boosted Trump's Campaign
Did Russian bots boost Trump’s popularity when he needed it most? According to CNN, 50,000 automated accounts with links to Russia retweeted the presidential candidate nearly 500,000 times in the final weeks before the 2016 presidential election, and were responsible for 4.25% of all retweets of Trump's account between September 1 and November 15.
In a written statement, Twitter told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bots retweeted Trump 10 times more than they retweeted Hillary Clinton. Still, the company insisted that the pro-Trump bot activity made up "a very small fraction of overall activity" on the website prior to the election, and in fact only represented 1% of election-related activist tweets on Twitter.
[Photo: Getty Images]