Thursday, January 25, 2018


CNN reports that demands for the release of Devin Nunes's secret memo about the FBI originated from some suspicious Twitter accounts:
The viral hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo appears to have been driven at least in part by a swarm of Twitter accounts set up in the past week, a CNN analysis has found.

More than 1,000 accounts that were set up between Thursday -- when the hashtag first appeared -- and Sunday night have tweeted the hashtag. 460 of those were what are known as "egg accounts," accounts that don't even have a profile picture. About 200 of the accounts had sent only four or fewer tweets by Sunday night, with at least one of those featuring the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag.
Right now your thoughts are probably turning to Russia. A few days ago, Business Insider's Natasha Bertrand told us this:
#ReleaseTheMemo is the top-trending hashtag among Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations, according to Hamilton 68, a website launched last year that says it tracks Russian propaganda in near-real time....

Bret Schafer, a communications coordinator at the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy who tracks the Hamilton 68 accounts, said he "certainly can't remember" the last time the researchers had seen a topic "promoted to this level" by the Russia-linked bots and trolls.
But then a Daily Beast report cast doubt on that story:
... a knowledgeable source says that Twitter’s internal analysis has thus far found that authentic American accounts, and not Russian imposters or automated bots, are driving #ReleaseTheMemo. There are no preliminary indications that the Twitter activity either driving the hashtag or engaging with it is either predominantly Russian.

In short, according to this source, who would not speak to The Daily Beast for attribution, the retweets are coming from inside the country.

The source pointed to influential American users on the right, including Donald Trump Jr., with his 2.49 million followers, pushing the hashtag forward. It’s become a favorite of far-right Republican congressmen, including Steve King, who claimed the still-secret memo shows the FBI was behaving “worse than Watergate” in one viral tweet. Mark Meadows called it an “absolutely shocking” display of “FISA abuses,” referring to a counterintelligence process.
There could be some truth in both the Business Insider and Daily Beast stories: Russians could be vigorously promoting the hashtag without being its main driver. Hamilton 68 might be measuring Twitter influence one way (number of accounts promoting the hashtag) and the "knowledgeable source" another (popularity of individual accounts using the hashtag). On the other hand, maybe the "knowledgeable source" is working on Twitter's behalf and is trying to spread the message that Twitter isn't failing to control bots -- Twitter would certainly want that message out there.

I wonder if Republicans are simply mastering Russian techniques and implementing them on their own. Yes, Russian-linked accounts are promoting the hashtag, but so are GOP-linked accounts -- some in the hands of prominent Republicans, but also others newly created in bulk by Republican operatives.

Which berings me to a Jonathan Chait post titled "Republicans Are Using the Russian Playbook on the FBI," even though it isn't primarily about social media:
Odds are, you don’t remember any of the particular revelations contained in the stolen emails from John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee. But when WikiLeaks published them two years ago, they created a furor....

What the episode showed was that, if hostile actors are allowed to peek into a vast trove of their target’s private thoughts, they can usually find something that sounds shady. This is exactly the method Republicans are now using to discredit the FBI....

When they hacked Democratic emails, Russians were counting on a gullible mainstream news media and an unprincipled right-wing echo chamber to transform a bunch of trivial internal communications into a pseudo-scandal by wrenching them from all context. It is ironic that the current Republican effort to dismiss the very real scandal that arose from those hacks is using the exact same method.
Or it's not ironic at all, if Republicans have simply refined their tradecraft based on careful observation of what worked for the Russians.

Think about what happens when a Stateside terrorist attack is committed by someone expressing jihadist views. We look for direct links to ISIS and Al Qaeda, and usually we don't find any. It's far more likely that the perpetrator was simply radicalized by what was available online. That may be more or less what's happened to the Republicans. They might not be working with the Russians. They might just be watching their work, taking copious notes, and implementing the methodology on their own.

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