In response to last week’s “Twitter Files” takedown of the Hamilton 68 dashboard, which purportedly tracked Russian influence campaigns on social media, the dashboard’s sponsor issued a response blaming “the media, pundits, and even some lawmakers” for misunderstanding and misrepresenting the data. The congressional record tells a different story, however.
“At a bare minimum, the U.S. government needs to have an understanding of what Russia is doing in social media,” Clint Watts, the mastermind behind the Hamilton 68 dashboard, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during hearings on Jan. 17, 2018, regarding “Terrorism and Social Media: Is Big Tech Doing Enough?”
“The Hamilton 68 platform I’ve tried to provide to the U.S. government directly through multiples agencies” would do so, Watts suggested, stating that “regardless of the outcome of the election in 2016,” we should “want to equip our intelligence agencies, our law enforcement agencies, and the Department of Defense with just an understanding … just an understanding of what Russian active measures are doing around the world.”
“There is no excuse for it,” Watts concluded. “I can’t understand it.”
Watts’ 2018 Senate testimony bolstering the Hamilton 68 dashboard as the means of “understanding … what Russia is doing in social media,” cannot be squared with attempts by the dashboard’s host, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, to extricate itself from the latest scandal exposed by “The Twitter Files.”
One week ago today, independent journalist Matt Taibbi published “Move Over, Jayson Blair: Meet Hamilton 68, the New King of Media Fraud,” revealing internal Twitter communications establishing that the Hamilton 68 dashboard adopted a flawed methodology. Rather than using Russian bots or trolls to assess Russian influence campaigns, the accounts Hamilton 68 used to “understand” what the Russians were doing in social media were “neither strongly Russian nor strongly bots.”
Other Twitter emails stressed there was “no evidence to support the statement that the dashboard is a finger on the pulse of Russian information ops,” and that Hamilton 68 was “hardly evidence of a massive influence campaign.” Twitter’s then-chief of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, said it more simply: “I think we need to just call this out on the bullsh-t it is.”
While Twitter tried to warn the media and politicians not to rely on Hamilton 68, the tech giant opted to play the “long game,” limiting its public comments to vague counters to the claims of Russian influence campaigns rather than unequivocally calling out the BS. For that, Twitter deserves condemnation.
But it was Hamilton 68 that promoted itself as a “resource for journalists to appropriately identify Russian-sponsored information campaigns,” at least originally, and it deserves blame for that. Yet after Taibbi’s exposé broke, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, or ASD, issued a “Fact Sheet” response that sought to shift blame to others.
In its “Fact Sheet,” ASD claimed the dashboard “analyzed a dynamic list of more than 600 Twitter accounts linked, wittingly or unwittingly, to Russian influence activities online,” before complaining that “recent reporting on Hamilton disregards the dashboard’s published methodology, Hamilton 68 experts’ commentary, and Twitter’s own data.”
“The dashboard’s original methodology, acknowledged that ‘the content within the network is complex and should be understood in a nuanced way,’” ASD continued, going on to blame “members of the media, pundits, and even some lawmakers” for failing “to include appropriate context when using the dashboard’s data, despite ASD experts’ extensive efforts to correct misconceptions at the time.”
The think-tank host of Hamilton 68 further claimed that because its data “was consistently misunderstood or misrepresented,” ASD “published multiple follow-up instructions clarifying key points, including that ‘some accounts we track are automated bots, some are trolls, and some are real users. Some are in Russia, but many are not.’”
By use of an internet archive, Taibbi published an addendum in response to ASD’s “Fact Sheet.” Taibbi highlighted the difference between ASD’s current position and its old webpage’s representation that “there are two components to the dashboard feature,” with one being “overt promotion of content,” that “highlights trending content from Twitter accounts for media outlets known to be controlled by the Russian government.” “The second section,” the historical webpage indicated, included “Content Tweeted by Bots and Trolls,” which the archived webpage claimed, “highlight[ed] themes being pushed by Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns.”
This earlier summary creates a much different impression than ASD’s current caveat that the accounts tracked by Hamilton 68 may be “real users” and include many accounts that are not Russian.
It is not merely what ASD represented on its historical webpage, however, that contradicts the current efforts to contextualize the Hamilton 68 dashboard. Rather, when Watts testified before the Senate, he explicitly pointed to Hamilton 68 as the way for “the U.S. government” “to have an understanding of what Russia is doing in social media.” There was no nuance in his testimony.
Further, ASD claimed in its “Fact Sheet” that its experts undertook “extensive efforts to correct misconceptions.” However, when Watts testified before the Senate on Jan. 17, 2018, he sat silent when the Democrat senator from Hawaii, Brian Schatz, raised two Twitter trends media claimed were Russian influence campaigns based on Hamilton 68’s dashboard.
Let’s “talk about bots a little,” Schatz said, noting “there was public reporting that the Roy Moore campaign went from 27,000 to 47,000 Twitter followers over the weekend, and the substantial portion of those appear to be located in Russia.” Then “we had the take-a-knee thing where clearly there was an active measure to try to just sow discord. In other words, you’ve got bot and bot farms out there,” the Democrat senator said, intoning: “We have to think of this as undermining Democracy itself,” and not merely of “just Russian active measures.”
The claims that the #TakeAKnee debate and the large increase in followers of Roy Moore stemmed from Russia-linked accounts came from reporting based on the Hamilton 68 dashboard. Nonetheless, Watts did not correct Schatz’s misconceptions about Russian bots or bot farms nor add any context or nuance to the Democrat lawmaker’s conclusions, based on Hamilton 68’s analysis, that Russian active measures were behind both social media phenomena.
Given Watts’ congressional testimony and the ASD’s historical description of the Hamilton 68 project, it seems the only real “active measures” going on now to influence the public are those undertaken by ASD to blame the press, pundits, and politicians for relying on Hamilton 68.