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23 Mar 2018 18:06
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  •   Home > News > International

    Russia-linked internet bots trying to make the world an angrier place

    Even without a rancorous US presidential election to get involved in, Russia's online operatives are finding other ways to keep themselves busy.

    When a big contentious story breaks, chances are hundreds of Russia-linked bots and trolls will soon be tweeting about it.

    Moscow denies meddling in the 2016 US presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power, despite fresh claims from American intelligence agencies continuing to build a case that they did.

    But there's also an increasing body of evidence to suggest Russian agents don't need a US election to keep themselves busy stirring the pot in other parts of the world.

    It's not just the US that bots are interested in

    Analysis of automated Twitter accounts and those linked to Russian influence campaigns show how they use daily news events to act on the Kremlin's reported desire to promote disharmony abroad.

    The Hamilton 68 dashboard monitors 600 Twitter accounts likely controlled by Russian government influence operations, as well as those of "patriotic" pro-Russia users that are loosely connected or unconnected to those campaigns, and users influenced by these groups (whether they know it or not).

    It's backed by the non-partisan, non-profit German Marshall Fund of the United States that contributes research and analysis on transatlantic issues and produces real-time lists like this one of hashtags, topics and links being shared by these accounts.

    On any given day it shows how the accounts seek to hijack news events to get eyeballs and retweets on their posts.

    Twitter has just announced it will use software to stop people posting identical messages from multiple accounts in an effort to crack down on the tactic used by Russian agents to make tweets or topics go viral.

    And unsurprisingly it has been by far and away the hottest topic of the day among the bots.

    #Twitterlockout and #twitterpurge have been tweeted hundreds of times from these accounts and become worldwide trending topics.

    Many tweets bearing the hashtags accuse Twitter of censorship — including a tweet from Russia's English language news site RT.

    The most popular links being shared direct people to:

    • Fox News star Sean Hannity's page (specifically blogs attacking the FBI, Democrats and prominent African-American journalist April Ryan);
    • Conservative news and conspiracy sites and blogs;
    • Articles on Facebook and Russian social media platform VK;
    • Russian state media RT and Sputnik;
    • A story by German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle on Syria;
    • Video streaming site Periscope

    Topical news events are solid fodder for bots

    At the same time as they were posting about Twitter's crackdown, bots were busy tweeting about theSyria conflict, the death of US preacher Billy Graham, UK Parliament's Prime Minister's Question Time, Brexit, and Mr Trump's meeting with students and parents involved in the Florida school shooting that killed 17 people.

    The monitored accounts also sprang into action in the hours after the shooting itself, with Hamilton 68's list of trending topics filled with words and hashtags related to the massacre.

    Days later the bots began targeting David Hogg, a survivor of the Florida shooting and son of an ex-FBI agent, with some saying he was an actor doing the bidding of the intelligence agency.

    This time Twitter was forced to intervene.

    "This is pretty typical for them [the bots], to hop on breaking news like this," online disinformation campaign tracking website New Knowledge's CEO Jonathon Morgan told the New York Times.

    "The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically."

    A 37-page indictment charging three Russian companies and 13 individuals by US special counsel investigating Russian influence in US politics outlines how operatives sought to escalate tensions in the days after Mr Trump's election by promoting pro- and anti-Trump rallies.

    It's not just events that make international headlines that attract the attention of Russia's digital operatives.

    The hashtag #referendumdebat was also among their most tweeted about topics.

    The topic centres around the contentious debate in the Netherlands over moves to scrap referendums as prominent far-right parties continue their push for a vote on leaving the EU.

    It comes about a year after Dutch officials ditched electronic voting for fear of Russian hacking.

    We're learning more about their tactics

    The Russian Government became really nervous about the influence of social media in politics after anti-Putin protests hit the streets in late 2011.

    One of the companies in the special counsel indictment identified the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency as having "had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election".

    The ABC's Norman Hermant reported on the so-called "troll factory" in 2015, as they were reportedly beginning their work on the US election.

    Back then he spoke to activist Luda Savchuk, who worked for two months as a troll in the "factory" that employed up to 300 people.

    "I saw that this is really a big factory to produce paid comments, posts, pictures, video — any content we face on the internet is produced there," she told Hermant.

    "There are four floors there, very many departments dealing with social networks, LiveJournal [a popular Russian online forum], YouTube, forums with the websites of different cities."

    She said troll factory workers were busiest disseminating plenty at the time of big news events.

    Another election to get involved in

    US politicians are already positioning themselves ahead of November's mid-term congressional election and it's probably fair to assume Russian bots will try to play as big a role as they can.

    "I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that," CIA director Mike Pompeo told the BBC last month.

    "But I am confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election, that we'll push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won't be great."

    The special counsel indictment said a key goal of the bots' campaign in 2016 was not only to support Mr Trump but to wade into the most contentious political debates to create disruption.

    Given the number of election races in this election, this again seems to be the desired technique.

    In the final two weeks of January, Hamilton 68 analysis found the top links shared by "Kremlin-oriented" Twitter accounts were about "deep state" efforts to bring down and undermine Mr Trump and attacks on the credibility of the FBI, Department of Justice and, predictably, Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

    They were the persistent focus of right-wing commentators and pundits in late January (and, let's be honest for many months now).

    Hillary Clinton was the most tweeted about person (yes, still) with rapper Jay Z also among the top 5 after his public spat with the President over his "shithole countries" remark.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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