Bot and troll networks are flooding Twitter with disinformation tied to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, researchers and analytics services tell Quartz.
The subject has produced unprecedented levels of falsehoods and conspiracy theories on Twitter—working on both sides of the political spectrum, says Ben Decker, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.
The disinformation is coming from accounts both in the US and abroad.
Russian-linked Twitter accounts
Online Twitter accounts tied to Russia are heavily involved in discussing the Supreme Court nominee and allegations against him online.
Hamilton68, a project run by the German Marshall Fund think tank that tracks tweets “tied to Russia-linked influence networks,” listed Kavanaugh, Trump, the FBI, and Ford as the top four topics mentioned by Russia-linked accounts on the evening of Oct.1.
The Russia-linked accounts are largely lending their support to Kavanaugh, says Jonathon Morgan, CEO of New Knowledge, the company that built the software behind Hamilton68. Morgan, who is currently tracking a set of around 1,000 accounts he believes are tied to Russia, says the Kavanaugh hearings have unleashed more US domestic-focused propaganda from foreign-linked networks than his firm has seen in months.
However, it’s difficult to say what percentage of online activity is being spread by foreign or domestic actors, or by bots or accounts run by actual humans who use artificial methods to boost their reach. That’s largely because the sheer quantity of tweets—Morgan is tracking just one subset of a larger network and it tweets tens of thousands of times per week—makes it impossible to track them all down.
Personal attacks and disinformation
Posts about Ford and Kavanaugh are “really cluttered and confused,” with various pieces of clear fabrication from both sides, says Decker.
Pro-Kavanaugh accounts have pushed out false smears aimed at discrediting Ford. One notable anti-Kavanaugh post picked up more than 11,000 retweets while purporting to to cite a Wall Street Journal article that in fact didn’t exist. The tweet (screenshot below) was quickly taken down, Decker says, but the account is still active.
Other accounts are using popular interest in the Ford-Kavanaugh dispute to push unrelated disinformation. A common tactic is to re-up a conspiracy theory or previously debunked story and add tags related to Kavanaugh so the tweet gains more traction.
Examples include re-circulating debunked sexual assault allegations against Democrats like representative Keith Ellison, senator Cory Booker, and former vice president Joe Biden; or against Republicans like senator Lindsey Graham. “Both sides are coopting matters that may have been killed off and never gained traction, and using the Kavanaugh incident to rehash these different claims,” Decker said.
Morgan says the Russian bots he’s tracking are largely using this latter method, seemingly with the broad aim of making Kavanaugh seem no worse than Democrats. The approach differs from Russian activity during the 2016 election, where influence campaigns aimed to sow discontent among both liberals and conservatives by pushing propaganda that appealed to both sides.
The net result of all this propaganda is to stop “any legitimate conversation happening online,” Decker says. “Instead of two people sitting in a quiet pub, discussing whether Dr. Ford’s testimony was legitimate, there are 100,000 of us in a large nightclub screaming five things at once.”