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Russian Bots Are Spreading False Information After The Florida Shooting


Special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies detailed some of the ways in which Russian trolls used Facebook in an attempt to suppress African-American and Muslim voter turnout during the 2016 presidential election. And just last week, after the school shooting in Florida, trolls used Twitter to promote an extremist gun position. Those are just two examples of how easy it is to use social media to manipulate public opinion and voter attitudes.

We're joined now by NPR's Aarti Shahani, who's following how social networks are responding. Hi, Aarti.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with last week's school shooting in Florida. How did trolls online exploit that tragedy?

SHAHANI: Well, I spoke with a researcher at New Knowledge - that's a group that studies pro-Russia trolls - and he gave me a chilling timeline. By 2:30 p.m. Eastern that day he saw an uptick of messages by this one troll network. And they just started sharing breaking news, OK? But by 3 p.m. Eastern, a half hour later, they quickly pivoted to conspiracy theories, speculating it was a Democrat conspiracy and also advancing an extreme pro-gun position, saying teachers need to carry concealed handguns to protect students.

Now, that latter talking point made its way into mainstream news. So it's an example of how anyone can drive the national conversation - you know, advocate strongly for an extreme position and manufacture a ton of retweets at the exact moment when pundits are looking to define the polls.

SHAPIRO: That example didn't have to do with an election per se, but can these propaganda campaigns influence voters enough to have an impact on elections?

SHAHANI: Yeah, well, I think the power of that example is to show that it - how quickly the mechanics work. And then it doesn't take a whole lot of voters to be swayed, right? I mean, we just had a Virginia state House election that ended in a tie. And our political system, because of the Electoral College and gerrymandering, is designed for a tiny group to sway an election. Then Facebook ad targeting is designed to let you reach that tiny group and slice and dice them according to their stance on guns or immigration or Trump, all for very little money.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about some of the most important steps that social media platforms are taking to deal with this problem.

SHAHANI: I think the single most important step seems to be coming out of Facebook, OK? They just announced that if you want to place a political ad in the U.S., they're going to mail you a postcard to your U.S. address and you've got to give them the verification code on it to proceed. That's a significant step for them, but it only covers a tiny sliver of ads - OK? - the ones that name political candidates. So if I want to run an issue ad, say, to discourage certain minorities from voting, as you'd referred to happening before, that new system would not apply to me. I've spoken with several experts and no one believes Facebook or Twitter is close to ready for the midterm elections here.

SHAPIRO: And Facebook was in some more controversy over the weekend when a senior employee tweeted that the main goal of Russian ads was not to sway U.S. elections. Explain what happened there.

SHAHANI: Yeah, the employee is named Rob Goldman. He's vice president of advertising. And what he basically did was criticize the news coverage of Russian meddling, saying, hey, the stories keep talking about election interference, but there's just not a lot of evidence of that in the Mueller indictment. President Trump retweeted him because it's consistent with his position. Twitter got very angry. There was a massive backlash. And so then Facebook, they basically threw their guy under the bus and said, hey, he didn't clear his remarks with us. They don't represent our point of view here.

And, you know, what I actually think is really unfortunate about this whole situation is that whether you agree or disagree with Goldman, he was doing exactly what Facebook needs to do more of, which is talking in public, OK? The company has been very secretive even though they know and we know it'll take a lot of outside partners to combat the problem of propaganda online.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Aarti Shahani, thanks a lot.

SHAHANI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MILK'S "WHEN THE SKY FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.