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How much influence does Russia actually have over the United States? The debate is ongoing, as some experts point to the “Russian bots,” automated social media accounts designed to enhance animosity along the political spectrum. Their latest target? The gun control debate.
Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham recently picked on David Hogg, Parkland survivor and activist, on Twitter. Ingraham’s controversial tweet about Hogg’s “whining” after being rejected from universities resulted in a massive furor on Twitter. And now, the social media battle between the two appears to have caught the attention of the Russian bots.
Hogg encouraged his 731,000 followers to contact advertisers who contributed to Ingraham’s Fox News show, leading to many companies pulling their advertising, including Wayfair and TripAdvisor. Ingraham then announced an unexpected “pre-planned” vacation amidst the turmoil, according to CNBC.
But support for her soon surfaced. On March 31, the hashtag “#istandwithlaura” began trending amongst Twitter accounts — and was then identified as a result of Russian influence operations, according to Business Insider. Hamilton 68, a site that tracks Russian bots, noted that Russian accounts tweeting the hashtag jumped by 2800% between March 30 and 31. Botcheck.me, another site tracking Russian influence, noted that amongst accounts tweeted at, Ingraham, Hogg, and Fox News’ jumped significantly in number as the drama unfolded.
Russian accounts had notably attempted to spread misinformation in the wake of the Parkland shooting, according to The New York Times: bots espoused wildly innacurate conspiracy theories about shooter Nikolas Cruz on Twitter and created fake interest groups pertaining to gun control on Facebook.
So is bot interference just a given now? Experts have begun to expect the “bot army” to mobilize shortly after any national incident.
“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 misinformation campaigns, in February after the high-profile school massacre, to The New York Times. “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”
The views expressed by Russian bots, which are not necessarily created by government operatives, do not always align with the Russian government's goals but are instead attempts at further dividing American opinions on political issues, according to Business Insider.
“[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, to The New York Times. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”
Amidst the increasingly trending hashtags, Ingraham apologized “for any upset or hurt [Ingraham’s] tweet caused [Hogg] or any of the brave victims of Parkland.”
Hogg has doubled down on his statements, characterizing Ingraham as a bully.
"It's disturbing to know that somebody can bully so many people and just get away with it, especially to the level that she did," he said in an interview with CNN. "No matter who somebody is, no matter how big or powerful they may seem, a bully is a bully, and it's important that you stand up to them."
To what extent the bots have successfully manipulated public opinion — and how much discord will they sow in the future — remains unclear.
[Photo: Laura Ingraham By SOPA Images/Getty Images]