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Media researchers find disinformation, baiting in wake of mass shooting

If you’ve spent much time on social media, you’ve probably encountered social bots, the software programs that automatically produce content and emulate human behavior.

Researchers have extensively documented the ways bots have interfered in political campaigns, muddying the waters of social media. The agenda in those situations is usually obvious enough. But why was there so much social bot activity following last year’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida? And was there a particular strategy behind it?

Three faculty members in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina decided to find out. Vanessa Kitzie, Ehsan Mohammadi and Amir Karami collected and analyzed 7 million tweets linked to nine popular keywords and hashtags related to gun control in the weeks following the Parkland shooting, using a mixed methods approach. 

“People are aware of bots, but they’re not good at discerning what activity is actually coming from bots,” says Kitzie, an assistant professor of library and information science. “In our analysis, we found that most of the accounts sharing social bot-generated content were humans.”

The majority of those retweets showcased the social bot strategy of baiting, such as retweeting content that criticized major figures, including news outlets, in the Parkland shooting. The purpose was to elicit angry or emotional responses.

Nearly 20 percent of the retweeted bot accounts attempted to instill doubt by posting dubious information aimed at law enforcement or other civic institutions. One bot-generated tweet blamed the FBI for ignoring tips about the shooter to concentrate on the Russia/Trump investigation.

Understanding these strategies can inform efforts to combat dubious information as well as more insidious disinformation campaigns,” the researchers wrote in a summary of their findings.

It turns out not all social bot-generated content is malevolent. Some benign social bots  shared information links to reliable, mainstream news sources, but the majority linked to conspiracy-mongering websites. The upshot? What you would expect probably — beware the bots and exercise caution when consuming social media.  

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