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How Russia-linked bots and trolls use tragedy to sow confusion

As President Trump continues to lash out at the FBI’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, more details are emerging about other Russian efforts to stoke controversy in the U.S. This week, Russia-linked bots and trolls have flooded Twitter with messages about last week's school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Erin Griffith, a senior writer at WIRED, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As President Trump continues to respond to the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election we're learning more about other opportunities Russians are seizing on to stir up controversy in this country. For example, after last week's school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed, Twitter was flooded with messages tagged with words like 'parkland' and 'gun control' and the name of the suspect, and much of this Twitter activity was directly tied to Russian accounts. With more on how Russia-linked bots and trolls are using a tragedy to create confusion we are joined by Erin Griffith. She's a senior writer at WIRED magazine.

    And we can understand when it comes to political conversations especially as rolled out in this indictment this last week that Russian interest and influence but why after a school shooting?

  • ERIN GRIFFITH:

    A big goal of a lot of these influence campaigns are just to attract attention. And when a national tragedy like this happens that is where a lot of people's eyeballs are going. So it's an opportunity to not only grab attention but to sow a little bit of discord because obviously school shootings can become highly politicized very quickly. And so to latch onto a hot button issue like that and kind of use it as a way to not just grow an audience but also spread some discord is an ideal opportunity. And in fact we saw this this was a high profile example of it but we actually did see this after the Texas shooting last year and after the Las Vegas shooting as well.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So this is an opportunity for them to heat up the rhetoric on both sides of for example the gun debate or just create or exploit existing divisions?

  • ERIN GRIFFITH:

    Yeah in this situation it was kind of interesting because some of the sites that tracked this stuff saw that the hashtags gun control and now you know which would argue you would think would be in favor of gun control arguments were trending but in fact it looks like these were being used almost sarcastically because they are being shared with links that were anti gun control. And so this is clear that they're trying to appeal to a very certain audience in this situation and that's an audience that also may be receptive to some of the messages that are more directly related to the Kremlin's agenda. An example of that would be in trying to discredit Mueller which has been a big message that's been happening basically since December.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Just for a little bit of background trolls versus bots. Give us an example of how these things work.

  • ERIN GRIFFITH:

    A lot of times what happens is when a hashtag begins trending a human will sort of create a message and jump on that and then use a bot to amplify that message and to spread it around. And it almost creates this feedback loop where eventually real humans that are not in any way affiliated with Russian influence campaigns start interacting and spreading the message themselves. That actually makes it a lot harder for a platform like Twitter to police this stuff because it's hard to tell what's coming from a human what's coming from a bot. What's coming from a quote unquote troll.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what does a platform like Twitter or Facebook where a lot of this is happening. What do they do?

  • ERIN GRIFFITH:

    They have been struggling with this a lot I think they know now that they definitely have to do something about it and they have gone from dismissing the problem as a very small part of the overall volume of messages being sent on their platforms to talking about OK we have to do something about this but it is very tricky on Facebook at least they have real names. But as we've seen with the indictments these are sophisticated influence campaigns and these are people who are creating accounts they're stealing identities in some cases as a way to buy ads using American dollars. It's really complicated. But I think this is a moment that these platforms are starting to realize we need to work directly with the government when we would need to be a little bit less scared of some of the regulation that we have been in the past. And so they're starting to try to replace it. But it is difficult.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Erin Griffiths Wired Thanks so much.

  • ERIN GRIFFITH:

    Thank you.

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