The media fell head over heels for a shoddy propaganda operation spearheaded by an ex-FBI agent. Twitter, internally, understood the operation to be partisan hackery but never spoke out. Organizations full of influential ex-government officials promoted the operation. And it’s only thanks to Matt Taibbi’s most recent contribution to “The Twitter Files” that we know the full extent of institutional corruption in the mind-boggling case of Hamilton 68.
American intelligence operatives have a history of using credulous reporters to spread disinformation for political purposes. (Remember when President Nixon’s team forged cables about John F. Kennedy and tried to get them in Life? Or the fate of Jean Seberg and her baby, thanks in part to COINTELPRO and the Los Angeles Times?) We’ve learned more and more about this in the years after the Cold War, yet elite media outlets eagerly swallow tactical disinformation when it confirms their priors.
The consequence? Self-appointed disinformation police in government and media shape American politics with actual disinformation, crafted specifically to quiet dissent.
Given access to Twitter’s internal records by new CEO Elon Musk, Taibbi pulled the company’s communications surrounding Hamilton 68 and reported his findings last Friday. The project styled itself as a “dashboard” that tracked Russian disinformation on Twitter.
As Taibbi wrote, “The secret ingredient in Hamilton 68’s analytic method was a list of 644 accounts supposedly linked ‘to Russian influence activities online.’ It was hidden from the public, but Twitter was in a unique position to recreate Hamilton’s sample by analyzing its Application Program Interface (API) requests, which is how they first ‘reverse-engineered’ Hamilton’s list in late 2017.”
The files unearthed by Taibbi show Twitter’s internal audit of the Hamilton 68 list found it to be, in the words of former executive Yoel Roth, “bullish-t.”
“These accounts are neither strongly Russian nor strongly bots,” another employee said. What Hamilton 68 was passing off as foreign disinformation was largely legitimate speech from anti-establishment American tweeters. Here’s Roth again: “Virtually any conclusion drawn from [the dashboard] will take conversations in conservative circles on Twitter and accuse them of being Russian.”
The “dashboard” confirmed elites’ bizarre anti-Trump Russia-collusion narrative by secretly classifying as Russian activity political speech from Americans with whom they disagreed.
Who ran Hamilton 68? Created by former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts, the project was supported by the Alliance for Securing Democracy and the German Marshall Fund. That means a host of powerful former government officials with long histories in and around intelligence agencies promoted the shoddy research for years or, at the very least, were complicit in Hamilton 68’s work by lending their support. Watts himself is an NBC News and MSNBC contributor. (Bill Kristol is a member of the Alliance’s advisory board.)
It gets so much worse on three fronts: academia, Big Tech, and media.
First, Taibbi notes the suspicious research was promoted uncritically by elite American universities, including Harvard and Princeton. Second, the files show Twitter declined to call out Hamilton 68 publicly, opting to “play a longer game here,” in the words of one employee who now advises Pete Buttigieg at the Department of Transportation.
Third, and most importantly, Twitter’s efforts to privately nudge reporters away from the story failed miserably. Taibbi found, “[Emily] Horne wrote several times that she had no luck in steering journalists away from these hack headlines. ‘Reporters are chafing,’ she wrote, adding, ‘it’s like shouting into a void.’” Horne works for the Biden administration as well.
This is a damning illustration of the institutional corruption rotting American politics and culture. You may wonder how ex-spooks could create a secret list, hide their results, pass off the research as legitimate, convince just about every major media outlet to run with the findings, convince elite universities to run with them, and keep Twitter quiet in the process. The answer is that some institutional powerbrokers are corrupt, some are inexcusably incompetent, and others are a combination.
Media Enable It All
If the media, however, had a semblance of the competence and virtue journalists claim to have, there would be much more incentive for powerful people in other institutions to stop behaving badly.
Watts and Co. did not make an honest mistake. When leftists at Twitter saw the same information, they immediately and literally called BS — privately, at least. Even their warnings could not dissuade dozens of journalists and politicians from blasting Hamilton 68’s findings to millions of Americans for years. This was an attempt to create junk science, hide the results with a laughable excuse, and use it to bolster a false narrative that discredited a political opponent.
Journalists did their part and took the bait. Bear in mind that NBC News and MSNBC have used Watts himself as a national security contributor for years, ignoring plenty of evidence that he was a dishonest propagandist using their airwaves to advance the interests of intelligence agencies. They actually used their own “disinformation” reporters to spread more disinformation.
My colleague Mollie Hemingway called this out all the way back in 2018, when the likes of Adam Schiff, Dianne Feinstein, and an astounding array of media outlets were promoting Hamilton 68.
“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,” Hemingway wrote. “Yet Hamilton 68’s claims are repeated uncritically by a media that asks no questions about the methodology.” (Twitter seemed to be misrepresenting its internal knowledge at the time, as well.)
Five years ago, making that point was met with attacks from anti-Trump activists who engaged in amateur intellectual gymnastics to classify every argument they disliked as Russian propaganda. The effect was to turn down the volume on people who were undercutting the campaign against Trump, empowering their own false narrative. Taibbi’s reporting vindicates the people who pushed back.