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After Bots Stoked Gun Debate, Twitter Blocks Them

After the Parkland school shooting, Russian-linked bots were used to drive the discussion around gun control. Twitter is fighting back.
Posted at 6:26 PM, Feb 22, 2018

Twitter has taken a major step toward eliminating bots from its platform. In a tweet thread, Twitter's general counsel said the company "took action" against accounts with automated activity by locking or suspending them. The general counsel's tweets don't mention bots specifically, but this move comes after bots with ties to Russia began spreading messages in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.

According to The New York Times, it was only an hourafter the tragedy that hashtags #guncontrolnow, #gunreformnow and #parklandshooting started trending on Twitter, adding heat to an already polarizing issue. Some of those tweets, however, weren't written by people — but by bots. 

Bots can hijack conversations online and spread misinformation and division by amplifying issues. Bot tracking sites found an increase in these Parkland-related conversations by Russian linked bots.Expert on online disinformation Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, told CNBC it's typical for bots to jump into breaking news tragedies.

He said, "This is a very common tactic in these types of troll networks, both to push extreme positions amongst Americans, but also undermine our belief in the information we receive."

This trolling comes a few days after special counsel RobertMueller indicted 13 Russians connected to a troll farm on suspicion of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election in what's been called "information warfare." Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the defendants were promoting discord and undermining public confidence in democracy. And when it comes to information warfare, Morgan says the bots don't have a side. 

"What I can say is that there are multiple networks of accounts. They're manipulating the conversation and they are playing both sides," Morgan said.

With propaganda bots and fake news amplifying division on social media, it also calls into question the responsibilities of social media platforms. Twitter's general counsel said that while the platform plans to share more information about its handling of automated accounts, the company doesn't want to reveal too much so that people behind these malicious accounts won't get around their systems.