How Russian Bots Tried to Inflame America’s Kavanaugh Divide

The Kremlin sought to capitalize on the bitter fight over Trump’s Supreme Court pick.

Russian operatives actively sought to inflame American discord during Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation process, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Open Markets Institute, a progressive think-tank, and the venture capital firm Village Capital, Democratic Senator Mark Warner said that he believed the most incendiary online content regarding Kavanaugh over the last few weeks was likely manufactured to sow political strife. There is no concrete evidence to corroborate that exact claim, but a software system monitoring Russian-linked social media accounts found that they were, in fact, working to “amplify pre-existing narratives,” most of which backed Kavanaugh’s defense against allegations of sexual assault.

“I think that we will discover that a large amount of … the real heinous, over-the-top vitriol was not generated by actual American discontent, but was generated by foreign bot activity,” Warner said.

The Virginia lawmaker cited the German Marshall Fund, a non-partisan think-tank focused on US- European relations, which has been monitoring Russian accounts. Warner said he would call for a report from the full intelligence community on the matter.

A Gallup poll last week found that Americans were intensely split on Kavanaugh: 46 percent said he should be confirmed, whereas 45 percent said he should not be. Nine percent said they had no opinion.

Bret Shafer, a social media analyst with the GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, has been keeping tabs on 600 Russian-linked accounts through a software program called Hamilton 68. While he said he  couldn’t verify Warner’s claim that “foreign bots” were the source of the nastiest online content, he referred to Hamilton 68’s findings that Russian accounts were “propagating hashtags in favor of Kavanaugh’s nomination and spreading articles decrying and attempting to discredit women who accused him of sexual assault.”

It’s not yet clear how effective these efforts were. Another German Marshall Fund staffer, Sydney Simon, told me that Russian operatives “likely played a negligible role in actually tipping the conversation in any meaningful or partisan way.”

Nevertheless, the Russians were clearly trying to use this deeply controversial and intense national moment to exacerbate the country’s divisions. This is not inconsistent with past Russian behavior. “It would be more surprising if these accounts weren’t talking about the hearing, given that it was clearly the dominate topic over the course of the last month,” Shafer told me. “What I look for are cases when they are promoting narratives that aren’t being discussed by Americans, or are amplifying fringe, conspiratorial content in an effort to inflame internal divisions in the U.S. This what they do all day, every day, so it was only notable in that it was another example of a consistent pattern of behavior.”

In his remarks Thursday, Warner said that the vast majority of extremist social media postings, in general, came from robots rather than people. He said that John Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Graphika and one of the world’s leading social media analysts, told him that “the political content on the web—on the far-left and far-right—is actually 25 to 30-to-1 either foreign-based or bot activity versus actually American citizens.”

Warner’s comments reflect the latest episode in Russia’s ongoing effort to polarize the American public. All the major U.S. intelligence heads have said that the Russians actively sought to promote Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton’s candidacy during the 2016 election. Since then, Russian bots have been accused of influencing anti-vaccine discourse on Twitter and using the murder of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts to distract attention from Paul Manafort’s trial, all to spread misinformation and propaganda, as well as deepen the country’s growing sociopolitical divide.

In July, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced stinging indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officers for their involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Convention and the Clinton campaign in 2016.

Countermeasures against Russia—including a robust sanctions regime and other security measures—have been the subject of fierce debate since Trump was elected president. Over the summer, House Republicans stunningly voted down a measure to increase election security spending to prevent Russia from interfering in the next election.

“The American people are watching,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, before the vote was cast. “We must ensure that we—unlike our president—are on the right side of history at this pivotal moment in our democracy.”

Kaila Philo

Kaila Philo is an editorial intern at Washington Monthly.