Russian Twitter bots seize on gun hashtags after Parkland

Propaganda-tracking sites report uptick in shooting-related terms following deadly spree in Florida.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Steven Musil
2 min read
Two women hug at a police checkpoint near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed by a gunman Wednesday.

Two women hug at a police checkpoint near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed by a gunman Wednesday.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A day after the deadliest school shooting in the US in five years, Russian bots on Thursday began inundating Twitter with gun-related tweets.

Shooting-related terms dominated the trending hashtags and trending topics at Hamilton 68, a website created by the bipartisan security organization Securing Democracy to track activity from Twitter accounts it's identified as linked to Russian influence campaigns. Popular terms included guncontrol, gunreformnow, floridaschoolshooting and nikolascruz, which refers to the suspect in the shooting.

At Botcheck.me, a website that tracks 1,500 political propaganda bots, the dashboard for most-popular hashtags in the past 24 hours was dominated by terms such as guncontrol, parkland and gunreformnow. Ash Bhat, one of the project's creators, wouldn't speculate on who was behind the bots his site tracks but told Wired the bots amplify the hashtags until they're eventually adopted by human users.

"Over time the hashtag moves out of the bot network to the general public," he said.

The figures from the bot-tracking sites illustrate how Russian meddlers continue to manipulate the platform following efforts to use social networks to sow discontent during the 2016 US election. Those efforts targeted highly politicized social issues such as immigration, guns and LGBT rights.

Twitter has said it detects about 450,000 "suspicious" logins a day that may be bots or computer programs created to automatically post and respond to things on Twitter.  It's also said it's identified 3,814 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, which was the seat of the Russian propaganda effort during the election.

Prosecutors on Thursday charged Cruz, a 19-year-old former student at the school, with 17 counts of premeditated murder after the rampage Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Fifteen other students were wounded.

Twitter didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.

Special Reports: CNET's in-depth features in one place.