After violent protests rocked Charlottesville, Virginia last month, Republican Senator John McCain took to Twitter to condemn hatred and bigotry and urge President Donald Trump to speak out more forcefully.
Within hours, an online campaign attacking McCain — a frequent Trump critic — began circulating, amplified with the help of automated and human-coordinated networks known as bots and cyborgs linking to blogs on “Traitor McCain” and the hashtag #ExplainMcCain.
After the 2016 US presidential race was subject to Russian cyber meddling, analysts say the ferocity of more recent assaults is a preview of what could be coming in the 2018 elections, when Republicans will be defending their control of both chambers of Congress.
“They haven’t stood still since 2016,” said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow in information defence at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council in Washington, which tracked the activity. “People have woken up to the idea that bots equal influence and lots of people will be wanting to be influencing the midterms.”
While special counsel and former FBI chief Robert Mueller keeps investigating the 2016 race, Nimmo’s work is among a number of initiatives cropping up at think tanks, startups, and even the Pentagon seeking to grasp how bots and influence operations are rapidly evolving.