After Mueller report, Twitter bots pushed 'Russiagate hoax' narrative

Source: NBC News | April 23, 2019 | Ben Collins

As social media platforms continue to prepare for the 2020 election, efforts to spread disinformation and sow discord remain an ongoing issue.

A network of more than 5,000 pro-Trump Twitter bots railed against the “Russiagate hoax” shortly after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report last week, according to data gathered by a prominent disinformation researcher and analyzed by NBC News. The network illustrates the ongoing challenge Twitter faces in persistent efforts to manipulate its platform.

These bots, however, did not appear to come from Russia. Instead, the bots had ties to a social media operation that previously pushed messages backing the government of Saudi Arabia and were connected to a person who claimed to be a private social media consultant, according to internet domain and account registration records. The bots, which were created last November and December, were pulled down by Twitter on Sunday night for breaking the social network’s rules against “manipulation,” the company said.

As social media platforms continue to prepare for the 2020 election, efforts to spread disinformation and sow discord remain an ongoing issue. And while operations sponsored by foreign countries are still a threat, the rise of for-profit trolling operations, which may include the new bot network, have added a new element for companies to counter.

“The landscape has changed,” said Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who focuses on global disinformation campaigns. “Since 2016, everybody’s doing this. It’s trolling as a service. And since there are no consequences, the least sophisticated of all the actors are doing this.”

Almost all of the since-removed accounts, most of which only posted about 30 times each, attacked the press and lamented how the “Russiagate hoax” affected Trump’s presidency. Many of the accounts copied verbatim tweets from other pro-Trump accounts without attributing those tweets to the original poster.

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