How Russian Bots Spread Fear at University in the U.S.

Journal article reveals that anger and confusion at University of Missouri in 2015 were due in part to fabricated reports that were part of a disinformation campaign from Russia.

February 15, 2018

Numerous reports in the last year have documented how Russian bots manipulated social media during the 2016 presidential campaign.

A new journal article in Strategic Studies Quarterly reveals that the Russian bots had another target in the fall of 2015: students at the University of Missouri at Columbia. The bots created false impressions about some threats against black students and faculty members at the university, which resulted in some campus leaders calling for people to stay home and many students to say that they were terrified. The false reports also contributed to a negative image of the university -- particularly with regard to its support for minority students -- that the university continues to fight.

Complicating the situation is that racial tensions were quite real at Mizzou that fall, and real threats did exist. But the article documents how the false reports contributed to considerable fear on campus. In fact, the Russian bots avoided detection in part because the hashtag #PrayforMizzou was used by real people who were at the university or were concerned about it, as well as by those forwarding the bot-created tweets.

Missouri was among a number of campuses where verified racial incidents and histories of poor race relations exploded in the fall of 2015. The events at the University of Missouri drew widespread attention, in part because members of the football team backed protesting students. Racial threats escalated after the University of Missouri System's president, the target of some of the protests, resigned. And an arrest quickly followed a real threat against black people on campus.

But the arrest didn't calm the campus, in part because of news reports. One of the reports that was quickly picked up and circulated widely came from Russian bots, the journal article says, and Missouri officials now believe this is what happened: tweets from this bot said that local police officers were marching with Klan members on or near campus. The tweet said that the supposed author's younger brother had been beaten up by police officers, and the tweet was accompanied by a photo of a black boy who looked as if he had just been beaten up. People immediately started retweeting the tweet, using the #PrayforMizzou hashtag.

The author of the journal article is Lieutenant Colonel Jarred Prier of the United States Air Force.

Prier writes that there was plenty of evidence -- for those looking -- that the tweets that spread were false. He cites the tweeting and retweeting patterns, consistent with other Russian bot efforts. "The plot was smoothly executed and evaded the algorithms Twitter designed to catch bot tweeting, mainly because the Mizzou hashtag was being used outside of that attack," he writes. "The narrative was set as the trend was hijacked, and the hoax was underway."

Had anyone done a search of Google images for "bruised black child," the image that was included in the false tweet would have come up -- an image showing a child who had been beaten up by police, but a year prior in Ohio.

Officials at the University of Missouri at the time repeatedly appealed for calm and stressed that they could not confirm some of the reports coming in. But this took place at a time when many black leaders on campus and in the state were not feeling trust in the university.

Christian Basi, director of the news bureau at the university, said in an interview Wednesday that the journal article (which also discusses the spread of other false reports on social media) was consistent with what university officials believe happened.

"This certainly helped explain the origin of some of the 'news' that we were trying to combat," he said. The university suffered a decline in applications after the protests but has seen numbers rebound this year.

Still, he said, "we still get people calling" and asking about the false reports.

With reports of Russian bot activity in the United States continuing, what should colleges do if they fear they may be in a situation such as the one Mizzou experienced in 2015?

Basi offered two pieces of advice. One is to establish and publicize -- in advance of any situation developing -- the social media channels, websites and so forth where people can get information about safety threats and security.

The second piece of advice focuses on speed. "The faster you can get out with an official correction, the better off you will be."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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