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Russia taking advantage of American tragedies such as Las Vegas shooting

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, 10:54 a.m.
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 01:  People scramble for shelter at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after apparent gun fire was heard on October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. A gunman has opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas, leaving at least 20 people dead and more than 100 injured. Police have confirmed that one suspect has been shot. The investigation is ongoing. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 01: People scramble for shelter at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after apparent gun fire was heard on October 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. A gunman has opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas, leaving at least 20 people dead and more than 100 injured. Police have confirmed that one suspect has been shot. The investigation is ongoing. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
A Russian Communist party supporter holds a portrait of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as he takes part in a memorial ceremony to mark the 62nd anniversary of his death at Moscow's Red Square on March 5, 2015. While historians blame Stalin for the deaths of millions in purges, prison camps and forced collectivization, many in Russia still praise him for leading the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. AFP PHOTO/ YURI KADOBNOV        (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images
A Russian Communist party supporter holds a portrait of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as he takes part in a memorial ceremony to mark the 62nd anniversary of his death at Moscow's Red Square on March 5, 2015. While historians blame Stalin for the deaths of millions in purges, prison camps and forced collectivization, many in Russia still praise him for leading the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. AFP PHOTO/ YURI KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters after a session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Minsk, April 29, 2014. Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow saw no need for counter sanctions against the West, but could reconsider the participation of Western companies in its economy, including energy projects. 'We would very much wish not to resort to any measures in response. I hope we won't get to that point,' he told reporters after meeting with the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Picture taken April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (BELARUS - Tags: POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
REUTERS
Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters after a session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Minsk, April 29, 2014. Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow saw no need for counter sanctions against the West, but could reconsider the participation of Western companies in its economy, including energy projects. 'We would very much wish not to resort to any measures in response. I hope we won't get to that point,' he told reporters after meeting with the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Picture taken April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (BELARUS - Tags: POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

There is a version of nearly every major news story that Russia wants you to know.

And the Kremlin has constructed a massive network of social media profiles — humans and bots — to make sure its stories winds up at the top of Twitter or in your Facebook feed.

“Any time there is any kind of socially divisive issue out there, they tend to hop on that,” said Bret Schafer of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “We've seen their ability to get behind a message and push it up into the more general discussion.”

Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative to guard against Russian and other efforts to undermine democracy and democratic institutions in the United States and Europe, monitors 600 Twitter accounts that are linked to, affiliated with or supportive of the Russian government. In the aftermath of major events, those accounts post tweets and stories that amplify topics more apt to tear America apart than bring it together in the face of tragedies, devastation or turmoil.

For example, stories and posts by the accounts about protests of the national anthem by NFL players sided with President Trump and were critical of the players, coaches and league. Criticism of Trump and the federal response to the devastation in Puerto Rico by San Juan's mayor was politically motivated, according to the accounts. And the shooter in Las Vegas on Sunday night that killed at least 59 and injured more than 500 had radical learnings.

The top link shared for most of the day Monday by the 600 Russian-affilitated accounts monitored by the Alliance for Securing Democracy was a story on www.truepundit.com, a conservative news site given a “Pants on Fire” score by PolitiFact and called “super-dubious” by Politico, that cites exclusive information from an unnamed FBI source that Stephen Paddock “had ‘radical leanings' when it came to politics.”

“Any time there is a tragedy, there is ripe ground for disinformation,” said Schafer, coordinator for communications, social media and digital content for the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Right now, I would say be very, very cautious of the news coming out.”

The 2016 election shone a spotlight on efforts by the Russian government to influence the United States' domestic affairs. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller is overseeing a federal investigation into Russian interference in the election. Trump's campaign is under scrutiny. On Monday, Facebook turned over more than 3,000 ads to congressional investigators that the company says were bought by Russia. Twitter will go before the Senate and House intelligence committees Thursday.

But Russia's meddling didn't start or end with the 2016 election. Nor will the use of social media for harmful and even criminal enterprises, said David Hickton, director of University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security and a former U.S. Attorney who mounted pioneering prosecutions of cyber criminals.

American officials know Russia has learned how to manipulate social media to spread false information, amplify contentious topics and garner sympathy, support and awareness for pro-Russia causes. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been compromised, as have internet service providers, and they should cooperate with investigators to stop it, Hickton said.

“This is not something that we can pretend is not just happening,” Hickton said. “If fear and anger are being stoked by initiatives that are coming from our adversaries to sow discord in our country, we need to get a grip on that and stop it.”

Schafer said it might be too soon after the Las Vegas shooting to know how Russia might try to use it to manipulate Americans.

“As soon as it comes out what his motivation was — particularly if it appears to have come from a left-leaning background — you are quickly going to see a coordinated message around this,” Schafer said of the Russians.

He said to be wary of accounts that are relatively new and have lots of posts but few followers or friends. Any account filled with politics but void of family photos or posts about birthdays or other occasions should be suspect.

“Take a look at the person's account and see if it adds up to being a normal person,” Schafer said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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