Last week, Laurence Tribe suggested, without evidence, that a plane crash in Russia was related to fallout from the Russian dossier operation orchestrated and funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Tribe is a Harvard Law professor, a passionate critic of President Donald Trump, and a known Russia conspiracy theorist. So it should have been surprising that the same day he was tweeting out plane crash conspiracy theories, he also argued in a “facially absurd” op-ed in The New York Times that Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., should be charged with obstruction of justice — no, really — for performing congressional oversight of the FBI.
Then again, it was only last March that The New York Times published another Russia conspiracy theorist named Louise Mensch talking about Russian hacking. Yes, the same Louise Mensch who believes that the “Marshal of the Supreme Court” told Trump about his impeachment and that Steve Bannon faces the death penalty for espionage. (Forget it, she’s rolling.)
When it comes to the Russia-Trump collusion theory, a bit more journalistic rigor is in order. One of the most enthusiastic promulgators of a Russia-Trump collusion theory is Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member on Nunes’ House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. For more than a year, Schiff has been hopping around all the TV stations claiming, without benefit of specifics, the existence of a vast conspiracy between Trump and Russia.
Leaks from his committee that advance this theory frequently get published, even if they fail to hold up under scrutiny. But even his public actions shouldn’t be accepted so uncritically.
Experts Refute The Russia Charge
On January 23, public interest in the memo from the majority of the intelligence committee had been high, as evidenced by the demand to #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag on Twitter and Facebook. When the hashtag went viral, Schiff had a theory that it wasn’t the American public that was interested in abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Nope, it was Russians! Secret Russian bots were trying to make it look like Americans were interested in FISA abuse against a Trump campaign affiliate.
Schiff put out a press release pressuring private companies to investigate whether Russians using their platform were behind the spread of the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag. The letter demanded that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg perform an “in-depth forensic examination” on the “ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process.”
The Daily Beast quickly put out a story with an anonymous Twitter source denying that Russian bots were behind the spread of the hashtag. The story said the theory was bunk, according to “an early in-house analysis” that concluded the hashtag was mostly pushed by eager Americans:
The online groundswell urging the release of House Republicans’ attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation appears thus far to be organically American—not Russian propaganda, a source familiar with Twitter’s internal analysis told The Daily Beast.
But that was just an anonymous source at Twitter. Twitter itself publicly responded on January 26 with a letter saying an investigation “has not identified any significant activity connected to Russia with respect to Tweets posting original content to this hashtag.” The letter went on to note that #ReleaseTheMemo “was also used by several prominent, verified U.S. accounts on the evening of Thursday, January 18. Typically, hashtag use by high-profile accounts, including those with high numbers of followers, plays a role in driving conversations around a hashtag on Twitter.”
Facebook responded with a letter that said this was a Twitter hashtag, not a Facebook one, and added that the company would continue to update Congress on any Russian interference. Schiff went back and asked for more information and pressured social media companies for more action.
Facebook slapped it down again, saying, “To date, our internal Information Security team has not become aware of information or activity of a sort that would prompt further review.” Facebook explained that it monitors and assesses thousands of detailed account attributes such as location information and connections to others on the platform, and it hadn’t detected any significant Kremlin activity.
Media Coverage of the Russian Bot Story
When Schiff advanced his theory that it was Russian bots — not Americans — who cared about FISA abuse, he received typical friendly media coverage. But when Twitter and Facebook refuted the claim, media outlets either downplayed it or pretended it didn’t matter.
Politico is one outlet that heavily pushed the idea of Russian bots being behind the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag, despite the denials of officials at Facebook and Twitter. In January, PoliticoPro ran a story that acknowledged Twitter had found no evidence of any significant Russian bot activity before this odd section that pretended denial had never happened: “Schiff and Feinstein said the companies must deactivate the bot accounts if they violate user policies. They want Twitter and Facebook to notify users who may have seen posts from the bots and to describe how they’ll prevent similar foreign influence campaigns in the future.”
Even after more denials from Facebook and Twitter were issued, Politico continued to go all-in on Schiff’s idea that Russian bots were behind the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag, repeating his accusations. This article mentions The Daily Beast’s anonymous Twitter source, saying Russian bots weren’t behind the hashtag, omitting the on-the-record Twitter letters saying the same thing. This article mentions the Twitter denial, but it’s placed in the middle of the story with absolutely no consequence, as if it’s irrelevant.
Natasha Bertrand, a reporter who facilitates messages from Fusion GPS, the group that authored the infamous Russia dossier on behalf of the Clinton campaign, wrote a piece headlined “Russia-linked Twitter accounts are working overtime to help Devin Nunes and WikiLeaks.”
Her story and many others uncritically accept and promote a secretive group’s unverified claim of a Russian conspiracy. The Alliance for Securing Democracy runs an operation called Hamilton 68 that it claims tracks Russian bots, though it’s impossible to assess the claim because of the group’s methodology. The advisory council for the alliance includes NeverTrump stalwarts such as Bill Kristol and David Kramer, the man Sen. John McCain sent to London to pick up the discredited Russian dossier from Christopher Steele.
Hamilton 68’s claim — later refuted by Twitter and Facebook — formed the entire basis of Schiff’s theory that it was Russian bots, not real Americans, who wanted to learn about FISA abuse by the FBI. Asked to respond to Hamilton 68’s claim, Twitter responded, “Because the Hamilton Dashboard’s account list is not available to the public, we are unable to offer any specific context on the accounts it includes.” They added, “We have offered to review the list of accounts contained in the Dashboard and this offer remains open.”
In other words, Hamilton 68 won’t let anyone review their dashboard to determine in any way if they’re tracking actual Russian propaganda bots, or just conservative Americans who, for instance, care about FISA abuse. Yet Hamilton 68’s claims are repeated uncritically by a media that asks no questions about the methodology.
After the success of the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, Russian-influenced Twitter accounts are test-running other hashtags designed to stoke anger—particularly among Trump supporters—against so-called 'deep state' forces, according to analysts at Hamilton 68. https://t.co/xeNPPTlTof
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 11, 2018
Yesterday’s front page at The New York Times is a great example of how much the media are willing to publicize claims they have in no way independently verified:
As journalist Glenn Greenwald of Edward Snowden fame noted:
Russian bot hysteria is taking over many in the media. This week both Newsweek and RawStory were duped by a false story alleging that Russian bots forced Al Franken from office over his sexual harassment of women.
Thankfully, some other voices are making their way in this hysterical climate. Adrian Chen wrote the definitive piece on Russian troll farms back in 2015 for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It is well worth a read for anyone wanting a factual look at how Russian troll armies work and how to guard against them. His piece centers on the very same Internet Research Agency whose members were indicted by Robert Mueller on Friday. He knocked down the Russian bot hysteria on MSNBC:
OMG, a sober/informed Russia take on MSNBC! @AdrianChen , who profiled indicted Russian troll farm in 2015, tells @chrislhayes that what other MSNBC guests have compared to Pearl Harbor “is essentially a social media marketing campaign” and maybe not worthy of a national freakout pic.twitter.com/UkUaK2XRPe
— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) February 20, 2018
Masha Gessen is a vehement and long-standing Putin critic. She has written a book warning about Putin and many articles comparing Putin and Trump. Even she, in a new article for The New Yorker, mocks the hysteria over the troll farms and says of the Russian bot operation that it was “not at all sophisticated, and about as bold as, say, keying a neighbor’s car under the cover of night.”
Russian disinformation campaigns have been a real thing going back decades, but the implication that bots are a particularly significant force in turning political debate poisonous is ridiculous. It’s juvenile enough for Schiff to peddle his conspiracy theories. Journalists should show a bit more restraint before uncritically broadcasting them further.