AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Since the latest bombing in Austin, there has been a flurry of activity on social media. In fact, the hashtag #AustinBombings has dramatically spiked today. And to help us unpack why that is we're joined now by NPR national security editor Phil Ewing. Hey, Phil.
PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So what is happening? Why this sudden burst of activity on social media?
EWING: Well, there's two things taking place right now. Some of this is black users on Twitter saying that because some of the victims in this story were not white, this isn't getting as much attention as another story about bombings or a series of bombings in the United States would or should in this view. But there's also additional activity taking place on Twitter which appears initially to be connected with the Russian social media agitation that we've sort of gotten used to since the 2016 presidential race. There are dashboards and online tools that let us know which accounts are focusing on which hashtags from the Russian influence-mongers who've been targeting the United States since 2016, and they, too, have been tweeting about Austin bombings today.
CHANG: The theory being that these Russian bots are being used to drive a wedge between groups of people here in the United States about this issue, about the coverage being potentially racist.
EWING: That's right. Very little of the active measures that U.S. intelligence and national security officials have told us about since 2016 and before originates issues into the United States. Instead, what it does is look at the way our conversation is going nationally, whether it's about Charlottesville...
EWING: ...The NFL protests, the special election last year in Alabama, or in this case the Austin bombings, and then just tries to turn up the volume. So if you have a conversation that's taking place at a Level 5, they want it to be a Level 7 if they can. By turning up the volume, the goal is to just continue to sow this chaos and unrest inside the conversation in the United States.
CHANG: And these trolls, they're incredibly sophisticated, right? I mean, is there a way to possibly tell which accounts are legitimate and which are just trying to sow discord?
EWING: Not easily. And in fact the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has included some details in his indictment of 13 Russians and a number of Russian entities that were associated with this social media agitation in the United States. And he describes how there were people posing as supporters of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, clearly. And the goal is to appear to be a legitimate American talking to other Americans when in fact it's all part of a smokescreen.
CHANG: That's NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing. Thank you.
EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.