Twitter Files: Leftist think tank pushed myth of Russian influence on ‘astonishing array of news stories’

by WorldTribune Staff, January 29, 2023

A leftist think tank concocted thousands of false reports asserting Russia’s influence in U.S. politics, according to the latest batch of Twitter Files.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a think tank founded in 2017 shortly after President Donald Trump took office, created the Hamilton 68 dashboard, which claimed it monitored 600 Twitter accounts alleged to be Russian bots.

The dashboard was highly regarded by the mainstream media: Favorable coverage of ASD’s work appeared in Politico (“The Russian Bots Are Coming. This Bipartisan Duo Is On It.”), The Washington Post (“Russia-linked accounts are tweeting their support of embattled Fox News host Laura Ingraham”), and elsewhere.

But according to new revelations uncovered by independent journalist Matt Taibbi in the latest tranche of Twitter Files, the accounts on ASD’s list weren’t Russian bots. Twitter content moderators also were aware the list was inaccurate but were reluctant to criticize it due to fears of bad press.

The result was “one of the great media frauds of all time,” Taibbi concluded.

The Hamilton 68 “dashboard,” which repeatedly insisted there was widespread and deep Russian penetration of social media, was developed by former FBI special agent and MSNBC contributor Clint Watts, Taibbi reported.

The ASD Advisory Council included such figures as top Clinton ally John Podesta, Obama-era acting CIA Director Michael Morell, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and former conservative activist Bill Kristol.

“It was a scam. … Hamilton 68 simply collected a handful of mostly real, mostly American accounts, and described their organic conversations as Russian scheming,” wrote Taibbi.

Hamilton 68’s pronouncements were used to allege a hidden Russian hand in U.S. politics from hundreds, and possibly thousands, of news stories during the Trump years.

Days before his new Twitter Files report about Hamilton 68, Taibbi said he wrote the public relations officers of both of the sites’ parent organizations, the ASD and the German Marshall Fund (GMF), and “told them I was in possession of the Hamilton 68 list, which purported to track ‘Russian influence activities.’ I said I had a slew of internal Twitter documents that among other things identified their project as ‘bullshit.’ ”

Toward the end, Taibbi added:

“Given the sheer quantity of news stories sourced to Hamilton 68, this has to go down as one of the great media frauds of all time. Unless you have an explanation for how and why hundreds of non-Russians like Dennis Michael Lynch, Patrick Hennigsen, Joe Lauria, and [I inserted the name of a San Diego school board member] came to be on this list, there’s no other conclusion. I hope you will treat this matter with respect and answer this query. My story is going to identify not just people like Clint Watts but members of the ASD advisory board as party to this.”

Among the media outlets that refused to comment to Taibbi after the latest Twitter Files dropped include MSNBC, The Washington Post, Politico, and Mother Jones, all publishing “at least 14 Hamilton 68 stories” during the Trump years.

In addition to Democrats including Rep. Adam Schiff, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and Sen. Mark Warner, and Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford who elevated Hamilton 68, Taibbi also called out universities like Harvard, Princeton, and New York University for citing the dashboard as a source.

Taibbi published screenshots of several emails that show Twitter’s former trust and safety czar, Yoel Roth, discovering the Hamilton 68 list was wrong. The dashboard “falsely accuses a bunch of legitimate right-leaning accounts of being Russian bots,” he wrote. “I think we need to just call this out on the bullshit it is.”

Roth did not publicly denounce the list, in part because other Twitter employees dissuaded him, Taibbi notes. “We have to be careful in how much we push back on ASD publicly,” said one communications official.

Taibbi notes that several of the officials who advised against a public confrontation with ASD eventually left Twitter to work for Democrat Party political figures.

“This is all extremely damning. An organization with ties to the U.S. national security apparatus falsely portrayed a bunch of mostly right-leaning, Trump-supporting Twitter content as nefarious and Russian in origin. The mainstream media eagerly peddled this incorrect narrative. And Twitter wavered on pushing back because elite sentiment was so disposed to imagine Russian operatives hiding behind every curtain,” Reason’s Robby Soave noted.

Hamilton 68 responded to Friday’s Twitter Files drop with a series of claims, including that their site was always intended to be understood as “nuanced,” that they always maintained that “witting or unwitting” accounts could be on their list, and that “some accounts we track are automated bots, some are trolls, and some are real users.”

The new Hamilton 2.0 page includes in red font a warning that it would be “INCORRECT” to label anyone or anything that appears on their dashboard “as being connected to state-backed propaganda.”

But there’s this thing called the Wayback Machine, and here’s what it found on Hamilton 68’s original website:

These accounts were selected for their relationship to Russian-sponsored influence and disinformation campaigns, and not because of any domestic political content.

We have monitored these datasets for months in order to verify their relevance to Russian disinformation programs targeting the United States.

…this will provide a resource for journalists to appropriately identify Russian-sponsored information campaigns.

High on that original page, the Hamilton founders explained they monitored two types of accounts:

There are two components to the dashboard featured here.

The first section, “Overt Promotion of Content,” highlights trending content from Twitter accounts for media outlets known to be controlled by the Russian government.

The second section, “Content Tweeted by Bots and Trolls,” highlights themes being pushed by Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns.

“What makes this an important story is the sheer scale of the news footprint left by Hamilton 68’s digital McCarthyism,” Taibbi wrote. “Hamilton 68 was used as a source to assert Russian influence in an astonishing array of news stories: support for Brett Kavanaugh or the Devin Nunes memo, the Parkland shooting, manipulation of black voters, ‘attacks’ on the Mueller investigation… These stories raised fears in the population, and most insidious of all, were used to smear people like Tulsi Gabbard as foreign ‘assets,’ and drum up sympathy for political causes like Joe Biden’s campaign by describing critics as Russian-aligned.”

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