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Analyzing The Strategic Use Of Russian Bots


Russian bots apparently have opinions on the Parkland school shooting. By bots, we mean automated social media accounts linked to Russia, which federal investigators say were used to play up American divisions and promote President Trump's election in 2016. Now it seems that some bots weighed in on the divisive subject of mass shootings and gun control in the last few days. Bret Schafer is here in our studio. He tracks Russian disinformation at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which was set up after the 2016 election.

Welcome to the program, sir.

BRET SCHAFER: Thank you. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: What are the Russians saying so far as you can tell?

SCHAFER: So we saw the same kind of activity after the Vegas shooting, actually. So it started with just conversations that Americans were having. So it was breaking news. That quickly shifted to the gun control debate that took sort of extreme positions on both sides. And by Day 3, they were moving into conspiracy theories.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by extreme positions and conspiracy theories?

SCHAFER: So extreme positions - they are choosing - well - both the left and right side of the gun control debate but really finding whatever exists in the American media that is far from the center. So these are not sort of rational opinions here. They're looking for the extreme points of view and pushing those.

INSKEEP: So if somebody says, hypothetically, the government staged this whole nightmare to take away our guns - which is a thing that has been said about mass shootings in the past...


INSKEEP: ...These Russian accounts will go after that and promote that idea.

SCHAFER: We saw that. And we also saw that after Vegas. So one of our top hashtags that we saw trending online was actually #FalseFlag. And we see a lot of links to sites that promote these conspiracy theories. And again, it's the same thing we saw after Vegas and the Texas shooting last year.

INSKEEP: False flag operation, the phrase for this kind of conspiracy - this idea of a conspiracy.

What do the Russians want?

SCHAFER: Well, I think they want us fighting amongst each other. Senator Lankford - and I'm kind of paraphrasing here - said they're the kids on the schoolyard yelling fight, fight, fight, fight. So we're kind of practicing information warfare on ourselves right now unfortunately. And the Russians are just amplifying those voices on the extreme and stirring up trouble.

INSKEEP: Can I ask about a bit of a contrary opinion that's been put out in the last day or so by Masha Gessen? She is a writer for The New Yorker.


INSKEEP: She is no fan of Vladimir Putin for certain. But she's skeptical that this Russian interference is as large as it seems to be or as we've played it up to be. She writes, the Kremlin and its media are tickled to be taken so seriously. Their sub-grammatical imitations of American political rhetoric - and a lot of it is kind of not very grammatical - their overtures to the most marginal of political players are suddenly at the very heart of American political life.

Are we overdoing our concerns about this?

SCHAFER: I think yes and no. There is a concern that we take this too seriously and maybe overcorrect in terms of heavy-handed regulation. And that's actually what the Russians did after the Snowden affair. They used that to push very sort of extreme restrictions on Internet freedom. So we clearly don't want to see that happen...

INSKEEP: The Stoneman affair, you said - what is that?

SCHAFER: The Snowden affair.

INSKEEP: The Snowden affair - I'm sorry. I didn't quite follow that. Oh, Edward Snowden - OK. Go on.

SCHAFER: Correct, correct. So there is that fear that we could maybe blow this out of proportion. At the same time, by pushing the voices on the extreme and making these fringe voices seem like one voice is 30,000 because they're amplified by bots, it's drowning out the sort of rational debate that should be happening at the center.

INSKEEP: In about 10 seconds, does it effectively counter Russia just for the public to know what is happening?

SCHAFER: That's tough to do in 10 seconds. No. But I think it's the first step, maybe, to finding out a way to solve this.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. Schafer, thank you very much.

SCHAFER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Bret Schafer tracks Russian influence on Twitter for the Hamilton 68 project and the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.