Russia-linked pro-gun bots active in aftermath of Florida shooting

In the aftermath of the fatal shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the connection between Russia and the pro-gun lobby in the United States has gained renewed focus with those who track Russian attempts to spread chaos on social media, detecting a sharp rise in pro-gun messages traceable to Russia.

In the hours immediately following the latest school shooting “troll and bot-tracking sites reported an immediate uptick in related tweets from political propaganda bots and Russia-linked Twitter accounts,” according to Wired. Misinformation about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, as well as shooting-related terms, dominated trending hashtags and topics of a site that tracks Twitter activity linked to Russian influence campaigns.

According to Wired, the top link shared by Russia-linked accounts following the shooting was a 2014 article that criticized a statistic cited by pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety: “Twitter accounts tracked by the group have used the old link to try to debunk today’s stats about the frequency of school shootings.”

It turns out, however, that a statistic from the anti-gun group calling the tragedy the 18th school shooting in the United States so far in 2018, a number widely repeated in reporting of the Florida shooting, may have been misleading.

“It is a horrifying statistic. And it is wrong,” reported the Washington Post, explaining that the definition of “school shooting” used by the group was broad enough to include the suicide of a man who had been parked outside a vacant school that had been closed for seven months.

Russia and the NRA?

The activity of “Twitter bots” in the wake of the Florida shooting comes against a backdrop of separate U.S. government inquiries into possible connections between Russian agents, the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump. In January, McClatchy newspapers  reported the FBI was investigating whether a Russian banker called Alexander Torshin with close ties to Vladimir Putin may have funneled money through the National Rifle Association to support Trump’s presidential campaign.

Data compiled by the Open Secrets site of the Center for Responsive Politics investigative nonprofit service in Washington suggest the NRA spent almost $55 million on the 2016 election. However, according to a McClatchy news report, it was more than $70 million.

On February 2, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon officially requested information from the NRA and U.S. Treasury Department related to possible Russian contributions to the NRA to support Trump’s campaign (CNBC). In a letter to the NRA, Wyden, a Democrat, said he was “specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries” illegally influenced the U.S. election (CNBC).

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