Russia’s 2016 campaign in support of Donald Trump included many different means of inserting false information into the national conversation. It featured ads on radio stations in key cities intended to suppress Black support for Hillary Clinton, faux local news sites filled with fabricated stories supporting Trump, and fake Black Lives Matters sites on Facebook meant to increase the fear of rural white voters. There were targeted ads that leveraged online tools to plant false stories directly into critical districts, and direct intrusion into voter databases that did … who knows what. But one key component of the 2016 campaign was a vast army of ‘bot’ accounts, managed by a team of Russian military hackers. That effort filled Twitter, Facebook, and other sites—and in the process became some of the most influential accounts in social media.
Now it appears that it’s happened again. A new study shows that when it comes to forcing workers to go back into offices, stores, and factories, almost half the online voices shouting for the “reopening of America” were, and are, bot accounts. Of the accounts that have tweeted most on this topic, more than half are bots. Of the most influential, almost all are bots. And behind the bots … is someone still unknown.
The report comes out of Carnegie Mellon University. Digging through over 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus, researchers focused in on the most influential accounts—those most active, most retweeted, and most liked. Out of the top 1,000 accounts, 62% are bots. Perhaps even more amazing: of the 50 most influential accounts on this topic, 82% are bots.
The bots may be numerous, but their message isn’t varied. They’re not being used to pass along accurate news about COVID-19, to encourage social distancing, or to support state government calls for preventive measures. In addition to pushing false cures, like Trump’s much-pushed hydroxychloroquine, and spreading general false information about the dangers of COVID-19, there’s one point where bots are driving the whole of social media. According to the report, they are “dominating conversations about ending stay-at-home orders and ‘reopening America.’”
Other disasters have also brought along swarms of bot accounts trying to take advantage of the chaos to drive either profit or political division, but CMU reports that the pandemic has generated far more fake accounts than expected. Those bots aren’t just participating in the online discussion about reopening America, they are driving it.
These same bots are also pushing stories that deaths due to COVID-19 are being overcounted, that medical workers and hospitals are exaggerating the scale of the pandemic, that hospital rooms are filled with crisis actors or even mannequins to make the situation seem far worse than it is. The bots are both originating and repeating more than 100 different categories of false stories about COVID-19, the pandemic, and the steps needed to fight the disease. These conspiracy theories are designed to both increase anger and generate distrust of medical authorities. They’ve also played a role in driving in-person protests in cities across the country.
See if this looks familiar:
- A social media campaign that dominates a national conversation, introduces divisive themes, and helps to orchestrate small physical protests.
- Out-sized media coverage and intense social media amplification that makes those protests seem both far more significant and legitimate.
- A network of lies and conspiracy theories that opens divisions in the nation, plays on existing fears, and generates distrust of knowledgeable sources.
If any of that seems like a repeat, it’s because that was exactly Russia’s 2016 playbook. And that’s not a great surprise. Because this isn’t some random group of bots cobbled together by hackers just for kicks. The scale of this effort is huge, the messages are coordinated, and the impact has already been felt nationwide. According to CMU professor Kathleen Carley, “...it looks like it's a propaganda machine, and it definitely matches the Russian and Chinese playbooks.”
Proving the origin of the bots may be difficult, and there are certainly other candidates. The first reopen protests were in Michigan, where they were funded and pushed through an online effort of the Michigan Freedom Fund. The MFF is funded by the family of Betsy DeVos. The tools and propaganda developed by the MFF for that first protest were used as a template for other protests in other states. These protests have also leveraged pro-gun groups that descended on state capitols in the past—which is why the same protesters have appeared to threaten officials in multiple states.
The coordinated effort behind reopening America may or may not be a Russian plot. But it is a plot; one that has been eagerly supported by a network of conservative organizations who definitely learned a lesson from 2016. What they learned is that America is hugely vulnerable to a coordinated propaganda campaign, that a small number gun-waving protesters can be made to seem like a mass movement, and that they can get their way even if a majority of Americans disagree.
Whoever is behind it, it’s clear they got tired of asking Americans to sacrifice themselves for Wall Street. So they just took away the options.
2016 demonstrated America’s vulnerability to this kind of attack. 2020 shows that the nation is no more secure … but the attackers have improved.