Media

New Twitter Files Show Media Outlets Fell For ‘Russian Bot’ Lies

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James Lynch Investigative Reporter
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A prominent digital dashboard that claimed to track “Russian influence activities” on Twitter falsely accused hundreds of right-leaning users of being Russian bots, new documents show.

The Hamilton 68 digital dashboard, run by former FBI Agent Clint Watts, created a list of Twitter accounts it alleged were part of a Russian influence operation. Twitter executives did not find evidence of Hamilton 68’s claims and wanted to push back against the allegations, according to private communications released by veteran journalist Matt Taibbi in the latest “Twitter Files” report.

“I think we need to just call this out on the bullshit it is,” former Twitter Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth told colleagues in an Oct. 2017 email about Hamilton 68’s account list. Roth’s colleague Nick Pickles said in Aug. 2017 Hamilton 68’s account list was “hardly illuminating a massive influence operation,” Taibbi reported.

Roth warned colleagues in a Jan. 2018 email that “the Hamilton dashboard ‘falsely accuses a bunch of legitimate right-leaning accounts of being Russian bots,'” according to Tabbi. (RELATED: The Twitter Files Raised A Lot Of Questions About Twitter And The FBI. The Bureau Hasn’t Answered Any Of Them)

Media outlets frequently cited Hamilton 68 in reports about Russian bots amplifying hashtags that promoted conservative causes, Taibbi noted. Multiple outlets claimed that hashtags about former President Donald Trump, Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham, the deep state, the 2018 midterm elections, Russiagate and other news events were promoted by Russian bots, based on Hamilton 68’s findings.

Hamilton 68 said its analysis “linked 600 Twitter accounts to Russian influence activities online” when the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a national security think tank, launched the project in 2017. The list of accounts was never released to the public.

Taibbi notes that ASD’s advisory council includes several prominent figures, including “neoconservative writer Bill Kristol, former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, ex-Hillary for America chief John Podesta, and former heads or deputy heads of the CIA, NSA, and the Department of Homeland Security.”

When Twitter executives went through Hamilton 68’s list, Roth concluded in Feb. 2018 that “these accounts are neither strongly Russian nor strongly bots; they’re just generally right-leaning users. Virtually any conclusion drawn from it will take conversations in conservative circles on Twitter and accuse them of being Russian.”

The list presented an ethical challenge to Twitter, because “[r]eal people need to know they’ve been unilaterally labeled Russian stooges without evidence or recourse,” Roth said in a January 2018 email. He considered sending Hamilton 68 an ultimatum about releasing the list of accounts, according to Taibbi.

Twitter executives considered publicly refuting Hamilton 68 because “citing Hamilton 68 is being wrong, irresponsible, and biased,” a colleague said in a Feb. 2018 email to Roth. Other executives cautioned Roth against exposing the dashboard, including future White House spokesperson Emily Horne, according to Taibbi.

“[W]e have to be careful in how much we push back on ASD publicly,” Horne said to Roth in February 2018. Likewise, future Pete Buttigieg adviser Carlos Horne told Roth to “understand we have to play a longer game here” by not calling out Hamilton 68, Taibbi reported.

The Twitter accounts listed by Hamilton 68 were mostly ordinary American, Canadian and British users, according to Taibbi. The list only contained a few accounts linked to Russian propaganda network RT.