Russian Bots Infiltrate Local Listservs, Sparking Police Investigation

TAKOMA PARK, MD — Thousands of email messages sent to Takoma Park listservs appear to be the work of a sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign, according to a comprehensive analysis released this week.

Researchers at the University of Maryland College Park’s computer science department analyzed years of messages from all 450 Takoma Park neighborhood email lists. Their 200-page report concluded that the emails sent were likely the work of a Russian bot network based in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, which is thought to be a hotbed of hacking and disinformation activity aimed primarily at suppressing opposition to President Donald Trump.

“There appears to be a concerted effort by the Russian government to distract Takoma Park residents by engaging them in dozens of ridiculous controversies,” said Rajiv Gupta, a University of Maryland computer science professor and leader of the peer-reviewed study. “From WACO to PEN to Forest Park, Takoma Park e-mail listservs are famous for endless debates about liberal topics including opposition to Donald Trump, so it only makes sense that Russian supporters of the president would want to neutralize the city’s powerful opposition.”

Denise Chen, a Maryland PhD student who co-authored the study, said the researchers found a sophisticated system in which Russian artificial intelligence algorithms generated emails matching hyper-local interests of Takoma Park residents. The researchers uncovered traces of code used to generate fake comments about corporate power, tree ordinances, new sidewalks, organic grocery store loading zones, movies about Israel, 5G cell phone towers, outdoor seating in parallel parking spaces, and dogs urinating in leaf piles where children play.

“We have never seen anything this complex in the history of computer science,” Chen said. “Takoma Park residents spend so much time discussing personal opinions on listservs, often about trivial issues like loading zones for small grocery stores. It takes some very impressive coding skills to recreate this kind of principled debate.”

Residents were surprised to hear that Russian bots had infiltrated their listservs. “I just can’t believe it,” stated Tracy Gail, moderator of the Weeping Willow Street listserv. “We use top-rated platforms with the highest levels of security, like Yahoo Groups and AOL distribution lists. They never have problems ever.”

“I can’t believe it actually happened to me,” explained Spirit Shannon. “There I was staying up until 3 a.m. arguing with someone about yellow-painted curbs in the historic district who I had assumed was a neighbor. It was as if they lived on my block!”

Mortimer Higgenbotham, a 50-year Takoma Park resident, was also impressed by the sophisticated level of detail used to troll listservs. “Those Russian bots sure do understand the horror of cut-through traffic on Takoma Park’s streets. There is no bigger problem in American society than that.”

Informed of the analysis, the Takoma Park Police Chief said his department’s 20-strong team of forensic computer scientists would immediately examine the study’s findings.

“We will now be taking all listserv posts very seriously,” the Police Chief said. “We usually ignore the infinite false alarm posts of fireworks believed to be gun shots. From now on, if anyone’s post contains the words “gun shots,” we’ll be sending our entire squad, complete with armored vehicles and a K-9 unit to investigate.”

However, in a strange turn of events, the Police Chief announced that Russian bot activity suddenly ceased, and suggested that the Russians may have given up on their plan to infiltrate Takoma Park due to exhaustion from endless email discussions, filling their inboxes to capacity and overloading their servers.

Several messages were reported by residents to the police stating “We surrender! Takoma Park is exhausting. Please have your moderator remove me from this listserv.”