Bret Shafer, a social media analyst with the GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, has been keeping tabs on 600 Russian-linked accounts through a software system called Hamilton 68. While he’s unable to corroborate Warner’s claim that “foreign bots” were the source of the nastiest online content, he referred to Hamilton 68’s findings that Russian accounts were “propagating hashtags in favor of Kavanaugh’s nomination and spreading articles decrying and attempting to discredit women who accused him of sexual assault.”
It’s not yet clear how effective these efforts were. Another German Marshall Fund staffer, Sydney Simon, told me that Russian operatives “likely played a negligible role in actually tipping the conversation in any meaningful or partisan way.”
Nevertheless, the Russians were clearly trying to use this deeply controversial and intense national moment to exacerbate the country’s divisions. This is not inconsistent with past behavior that Russian operatives have been accused of by America’s intelligence heads. “It would be more surprising if these accounts weren’t talking about the hearing, given that it was clearly the dominate topic over the course of the last month,” Shafer told me. “What I look for are cases when they are promoting narratives that aren’t being discussed by Americans, or are amplifying fringe, conspiratorial content in an effort to inflame internal divisions in the U.S. This what they do all day, every day, so it was only notable in that it was another example of a consistent pattern of behavior.”
In his remarks Thursday, Warner said that the vast majority of extremist social media postings came from robots rather than people. He said that John Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Graphika and one of the world’s leading social media analysts, told him that “the political content on the web—on the far-left and far-right—is actually 25 to 30-to-1 either foreign-based or bot activity versus actually American citizens.”
Warner’s comments reflect the latest episode in Russia’s ongoing effort to polarize the American public. Since the 2016 election, all the major U.S. intelligence heads have said that the Russians actively sought to promote Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. And since then, Russian bots have been accused of influencing anti-vaccine discourse on Twitter and using the murder of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts to distract attention from Paul Manafort’s trial, all to spread misinformation and propaganda, as well as deepen the country’s growing sociopolitical divide.