The campaign of Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee for Virginia governor, says it has evidence that automated social media accounts - or bots - were used to inflame online chatter about a controversial TV ad launched by a progressive group that's backing Northam.
That ad, which depicted a white Gillespie supporter in a pickup truck bedecked with a Confederate flag chasing children of different ethnicities, was sponsored by the Latino Victory Fund and ran for just two days last week on Spanish language stations.
But it generated howls of outrage from the campaign of Republican rival Ed Gillespie and his surrogates and supporters. They denounced the spot as being disdainful of millions of Virginians, called on Northam to disavow it, and then condemned him when he declined. Gillespie appeared on "Fox and Friends" and called the ad "an attack on all Virginians."
Discussion about the ad has lit up Twitter and other social media platforms.
The Latino advocacy group stood by the ad as a response to a series of ads from Gillespie that began airing in September and seemed to link illegal immigrants with the violent Latino street gang MS-13. Those ads also have drawn widespread condemnation for being racially insensitive and for seeking to whip up fear about immigrants.
The Latino Victory Fund pulled its ad after only two days because of the incident in New York City in which a man driving a rented truck ran down pedestrians in what's been called and act of terrorism, killing eight people.
But the online chatter has continued, and the Northam campaign released a study commissioned from a group called Discourse Intelligence that analyzed the top 15 Twitter accounts that have posted using the words "Latino victory" and either Gillespie or Northam, or the thread #VAGov. Of those 15, the analysis concluded that 13 were either fully or partially automated, meaning the comments they posted were generated by software.
David Abrams, a spokesman for the Gillespie campaign, said it had "absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Virginians in both parties found this ad to be, in the words of The Washington Post editorial board, 'vile' and 'despicable'. The Northam campaign is so desperate they have resorted to fabricating conspiracy theories for their failing campaign. Since the ad ran, our online donations have tripled, and we have been inundated with requests to volunteer. The only question that remains is why hasn't Ralph Northam condemned this attack on his fellow Virginians, and what exactly was his campaign's role in the production of this spot."
The report was paid for by the Virginia Education Association as an in-kind service for the Northam campaign.
The issue of automated accounts has been linked to the problem of Russian or other outside agents' interference with the U.S. election process, most notably during last fall's presidential campaigns.
Because it's hard to say where thes anti-Northam bots originated, it's difficult to determine whether it could be a sign of an attempt by outside interests to influence the race for governor. It's also hard to put those numbers into context - bots and cyborgs, or partially automated accounts that feature some human input, are all over Twitter, Facebook and other social media services.
The researcher who compiled the report said he saw similar activity around other aspects of the Virginia election and that he will continue monitoring. "We are seeing the same exact techniques that attempted to skew the social media conversation and affect hashtags trending and search results that we saw in the [presidential] election," said researcher Timothy J. Chambers.
He said that as he has continued to scan for Northam over the past week, he has identified more than 700 suspicious new accounts following the candidate. Many of them, he said, are Turkish language accounts. That's possibly because many botnet services used for this kind of activity are based in Eastern Europe, Chambers said.
Days before the bots report was released Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Americans that while information warfare is not new, social media has the power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale never before imagined.
Although the report funded by Northam supporters did not pin the blame for bots on a specific country or culprit, last week Warner noted Russia's influence on the 2016 presidential race.
"Russian operatives are attempting to initiate and manipulate American social media to hijack the national conversation and to make Americans angry, to set us against ourselves and… to undermine our democracy," he said during a hearing with tech firms. "They did it in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. They are still doing it now."
Warner, who introduced the Honest Ads Act to protect elections from foreign interference, said disinformation campaigns work like this: Agents set up thousands of group accounts on lots of social media platforms, including Twitter. Accounts then spend months creating networks of real people to follow and like their content with the help of paid ads and automated bots.
"We all need to take a more discerning approach to what we are reading and sharing and who we're connecting with online," he said during the hearing. "We need to realize the person at the other end of that Facebook or Twitter argument may not be a real person at all."
In response to the bots report from the Northam campaign on Saturday, a Warner spokesman said researchers estimate up to one in six Twitter accounts are either automated or fake; that's 48 million accounts.
"What we saw during the 2016 presidential campaign was a consistent and coordinated effort by trolls and bots to 'flood the zone' to manipulate the conversation on social media," spokesman Kevin Hall said in a statement. "Twitter's anonymity, reach and speed make it the perfect platform for spreading fake information and hyper partisan content."