The Russian Ghost and the New Media McCarthyism

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By MATT TAIBBI*

A Twitter hoax used by US media to attack Russia

Historical media hoaxes, such as those committed by Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, have damaged the reputation of the New Republic and New York Times, respectively, when such media published invented news on their pages over the years. Thanks to the Twitter archives, we can now welcome a new member to this infamous club of fraudsters: the Hamilton 68 panel [now renamed Hamilton 2.0].

If we look at volume alone, the tool, so often used and mentioned, which has generated hundreds of fraudulent headlines and television news segments, could become the greatest case of media fabrication in American history. Virtually every major US news outlet is implicated, including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times e The Washington Post. the independent magazine Mother Jones, alone, assembled at least 14 stories based on the panel's “research”. Same sites fact-checking, such as Politifact e Snopes, cited the Hamilton panel as a source.

Hamilton 68 was and is a digital “dashboard”, designed to be used by journalists and academics to gauge “Russian disinformation” activity. It was the brainchild of a former FBI agent (and current “disinformation expert” for cable network MSNBC) Clint Watts, supported by think tanks neoconservatives German Marshall Fund and Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), where the panel is installed. The latter's advisory committee includes former acting CIA chief Michael Morell, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, former president of the electoral organization "Hillary for America" ​​(run by candidate Hillary Clinton), John Podesta, as well as the former editor of the neoconservative magazine Weekly Standard (the “bible of neoconservatism”), Bill Kristol.

Twitter archives expose the Hamilton 68 as a fake. The secret ingredient in the Hamilton panel's analytical method is a list of 644 accounts allegedly linked to online of Russian interference”. This list was always hidden from the public, but Twitter ended up in a prime position to recreate the Hamilton sample by analyzing its API requests (Application Program Interface), which is how they first "reverse-engineered" Hamilton's roster in late 2017.

The company was so concerned about the proliferation of reports linked to Hamilton 68 that it also requested a judicial review. Note that the second page below lists many of the different types of shadowban (“subtle ban”) that have existed on Twitter since 2017, reinforcing the news about “secret Twitter blacklists”, raised by Bari Weiss last month. There you can see categories ranging from “trend blacklist” to “search blacklist” and “NSFW high content” (content not suitable for viewing in public places or work). Twitter was checking how many Hamilton accounts would be spam (propaganda disseminators), false or similar to bots (robots). It should be noted that out of the 644 accounts, only 36 were registered in Russia, and many of them were associated with the (Russian government) news channel. RT (Russia Today).

Looking further, Twitter executives were shocked. The accounts that Hamilton 68 claimed were linked to “Russian-influenced activities online” were not only predominantly in English (86%), but mainly from “legitimate persons”, mainly from residents of the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

Realizing right away that Twitter could end up implicated in a crime of moral injury, the company's analysts noted in their records that these account holders "need to know that they have been unilaterally labeled as Russian puppets, without evidence or the right to a defense." Other comments on emails Company insiders say:

‒ “these accounts are neither evidently Russian nor evidently bots";

‒ “there is no evidence to support the assumption that the panel is a follow-up feature (a finger on the pulse) of Russian disinformation operations”;

- "this is strong evidence of a mass influence campaign".

The Director of Reliability and Safety, Yoel Roth, even declared: “perhaps we should consider all this [the “news” of the Hamilton 68] just as idiotic”.

The two founders of the Hamilton 68 panel, former adviser to Senator Marco Rubio's information security team (Florida far right), Jamie Fly, and foreign policy adviser to former candidate Hillary Clinton, Laura Rosenberger, told the magazine Politico that they could not reveal the accounts because “the russians would just close them”. OK. But a look at the list unveiled by Twitter, and which is only now coming to light, reveals the real reason why they couldn't make it public.

And it's not just a problem of misunderstanding the scientific method. It is simply a farce. Instead of tracking how “Russia” influenced American attitudes, Hamilton 68 simply collected a handful of mostly real accounts, mostly from Americans, and described their organic conversations as Russian intrigues. As Roth put it, "virtually every conclusion reached [by the panel] takes conversations in conservative circles on Twitter and accuse them of being Russian."

There were three main classes of accounts on the list used by the Hamilton panel: a thin layer of obvious Russians (eg: https://twitter.com/RT_America, the Russian government-funded international news network); then the larger pack consisting of real people from western countries; followed by a portion (somewhere between a fifth and a third) of “fleeting users”, “virtually inactive”, and propaganda dissemination accounts (spammers) who did not accumulate followers and “do not have a wider reach on the platform”. Twitter executives noted that the zombie accounts were not reverberating the real accounts. Instead of, say, a bunch of Russian accounts pushing Trumpist messages, it was the opposite: a bunch of real Trumpist accounts making points that Hamilton saw fit to blame on Russians.

“Account selection is bizarre and seemingly quite arbitrary,” wrote Yoel Roth. "They seem to have a strong preference for pro-Trump accounts (which they use to assert that Russia is expressing a preference for Trump, even though there is no good evidence that any of them are Russian)."

Even Twitter executives were surprised to read who was listed. Names ranged from well-known media figures like conservative writer David Horowitz and right-wing media entrepreneur Dennis Michael Lynch to progressives like the editor of the opinion portal News Consortium, Joe Lauria. It is crucial to understand that the list captured not only Donald Trump supporters, but also a range of political dissidents, including leftists, anarchists and comedians.

Wrote Twitter's Policy Director, Nick Pickles, upon seeing the name of the British comedian @Holbornlolz: “A bankrupt merchant. I follow him and I wouldn't say he's pro-Russia… I don't even remember him tweeting about Russia”.

These people never knew they were used for years to generate hundreds, if not thousands of media headlines about the alleged infiltration of bots russians in discussions online: whether it's the hearings of Supreme Court-nominee Brett Kavanaugh; whether it's about the campaign of former Democratic Representative, Hawaiian Samoan Tulsi Gabbard; be on the case #ReleaseTheMemo, the Trumpist campaign that demanded the disclosure of the “censored” FBI report on “Russian interference”; be about the Parkland Shootout; whether it's about the election of Donald Trump; be about the hashtags #WalkAway e #IStandWithLaura; whether it's about US missile attacks on Syria; whether it's about the Bernie Sanders campaign; whether it's about the Brexit movement, to turn black voters away from the Democrats; whether on calls for the resignation of National Security Adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster; whether on the "attacks" on investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller; in addition to numerous other issues.

Last week I started reaching out to the people on the list. Reactions fluctuated between blind fury (“motherfuckers!”) and shock (“I'm just one of those 73-year-old migratory birds that's now in Florida”).

“Unfortunately, I am not surprised. I am irritated that we are once again falsely accused of spreading 'Russian disinformation', this time on Twitter,” said Joe Lauria of the News Consortium. “Organisations like Hamilton 68 are in the business to impose an official narrative, which means weeding out inconvenient facts, which they call 'disinformation'”.

“I wrote a book about the US Constitution,” says Dave Shestokas, a Chicago attorney. "How I ended up on such a list is unbelievable to me."

“I am listed as a muzzle foreigner?" asked entrepreneur Dennis Michael Lynch. “As a proud taxpaying citizen, charitable family man, and honest son of a United States Marine who was awarded a Purple Heart for bravery, I am hurt. I deserve more than that. We all deserve it!”

As a child, Sonia Monsour lived through the civil war in Lebanon, in a city taken over by a Christian militia. Her father advised her to dispose of some leftist books they kept at home so that her political beliefs would not be used against her. Upon being told that she was on the Hamilton 68 list, she reminisced about that childhood story. She moved to the West to get away from this kind of problem. “It is not to be supposed that, in a free world, we are observed, in the most diverse levels, for what we say online", she said.

Oregon State citizen Jacob Levich (@cordeliers) was one of the few people on the list who knew what the Hamilton 68 panel was. he. Told that he was on their list, he said: "I can say that there is absolutely no sense that I am subject to any kind of Russian influence." Levich continued: “When I was a kid, my father told me about the McCarthyist blacklist. (…) As a child, it would never have occurred to me that it could come back, with such vigor and scope, and in a way designed to undermine the rights we hold dear”.

Jacob Levich's story gets to the heart of what is most sinister about the campaign promoted by the Hamilton 68 panel. This is digital McCarthyism, taking people with dissenting or unconventional views and accusing them en masse of "un-American activities." The ironic twist on the return of McCarthyism, in Hamilton's version, is that rather than targeting "leftists" (although there are several self-proclaimed leftist accounts on the list), most of the actual accounts are conservatives, with nicknames as ULTRA MAGA Dog Mom (in reference to the slogan Trumpist Make America Great Again) and @ClassyLadyForDJT (in reference to Donald John Trump).

Even on Twitter, where there were basically no declared conservatives on the email log, one could recognize that the Hamilton 68 panel (and at least two other polling institutes that use similar methodology) simply took organic conversations between Trumpists and characterized them. like Russian intrigues.

The platform “falsely accuses a bunch of legitimate right-wing accounts of being bots Russians,” as Yoel Roth noted. She sought to “enforce, based on partisan tendencies, the proposition that any right-wing content is necessarily propagated by bots Russians”.

And this all also becomes an academic scandal, insofar as Harvard, Princeton, temple university from Philadelphia, the New York University, George Washington University, among others, promoted the Hamilton 68 panel as a trusted source.

Perhaps most embarrassingly, several elected officials have promoted the platform. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat), Senator James Lankford (Republican), Senator Richard Blumenthal (Democrat), Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat) and former Governor and Senator Mark Warner (Democrat) are among the offenders.

Former agent Clint Watts, who clearly knew how to play the melodrama of his role, even issued dire warnings to the Senate Intelligence Committee, urging it to “follow the trail of corpses”, if you wanted to get to the bottom of the problem of Russian meddling.

While it's easy to see how unnerving it can be to be put on a list like this – one veteran combatant I spoke with had to leave the room and take a deep breath before returning to the phone – the most extensive damage from manipulation like this falls on society, which is at the mercy of an almost daily orchestration of the type “the bots Russians are coming.” Their stories are still severely impacting American culture and politics, and they played a significant role in the 2018 and 2020 election races, ruthlessly demolishing campaigns such as Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Tulsi Gabbard, while propelling the likes of Joe Biden (often described by the panel as a “target” of bots Russians).

After any controversy online, be the american football player saga Colin kepernick, be it the gun control debate after a mass shooting, reporters were quick to claim that “Russian robots” were trying to “sow division”, often relying on Hamilton’s “analyses” or some device of this type, to support their propositions.

Worse still, the Hamilton panel pioneered a new format of fake news, which reporters from organizations like Mother Jones, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC swallowed it for two reasons. First, they tended to be politically sympathetic to the panel's conclusions (the Daily Beast didn't need any encouragement to claim that bots russians were holding pro-Trump flash rallies “in 17 cities”). Second: it was content immediately at hand.

"Here's what the trolls russians are promoting today”, announced an article by Kevin Drum in the Mother Jones, as if to suggest that, in the Ham68 era, reporters could climb to the headlines as fast as instant coffee.

In early 2018 – perhaps after a conversation with Twitter, in which company executives pondered the positive side of “educating Clint” – Watts, the former FBI agent, even publicly questioned his own methodology, stating : "I'm not convinced about this thing about muzzle”. Not long after, another key figure associated with the Hamilton 68 panel, Jonathan Morgan of the “cybersecurity firm” New Knowledge, ended up unmasked when he forged the story of a Russian interference operation in the race for the Senate of Alabama. He used tactics similar to Hamilton's to create conversations Online simulating that Republican Roy Moore would have support from bots Russians. He was caught, and suffered the outrage of having what he called a "little experiment" described, by the way New York Times, as a “false flag operation”.

Even after this "experiment" came to light, and even after Watts expressed his doubts about the muzzle”, the flood of news in the style of “here come the bots" continued. Newspaper companies fell in love with a new trick: a research institute claimed the presence of bots, reporters would throw this appearance at hated targets like Tulsi Gabbard or former congressman and entrepreneur creator of the Trumpist social network (Truth Social) Devin Nunes, and then the headlines would flow. The scam needed just three elements: 1. the credentials of someone like “former FBI agent” Clint Watts; 2. the absence of anything resembling fact-checking; and 3. the silence of companies like Twitter.

As regards the third point, Twitter is not innocent. While people like Yoel Roth intended to be tough on fabulists – “my recommendation, at this stage, is an ultimatum: either you release the list or we release it,” he went on to write – ultimately other people, with transit through the Washington’s “revolving doors,” as future White House and National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne, then still an executive at Twitter, advised caution: “We have to be careful how much we repress ASD publications [Alliance for Securing Democracy: think tanks neoconservative who promotes the Hamilton panel],” she wrote.

Carlos Monje, also a Twitter executive and future senior adviser to Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg in the Joe Biden administration, agreed: "I was also very frustrated that I didn't publicly challenge the Hamilton 68 more severely, but I understand that we have to play a longer game here”, predicted Monje.

Even if Twitter had suppressed the Hamilton panel's action, it wouldn't have mattered. As it turned out, even when company spokespeople urged reporters not to take the “data” produced by Hamilton too seriously, they didn't; just as Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blumenthal failed to do so when Twitter tried to warn them that the stories surrounding “Russian robots” were false. Emily Horne has written several times that she has had no luck diverting journalists from these headlines about hackers. "Reporters are cranky," she wrote, adding, "It's like screaming into the void."

I solicited comments from a wide range of actors – from think tanks Alliance for Securing Democracy, Clint Watts, Michael McFaul, John Podesta and Bill Kristol to editors and news directors at MSNBC, Politico, Mother Jones, The Washington Post, Politifact and others. No one answered. They will, all of them, pretend it didn't happen. The few journalists who came to understand the dimension of the thing, Glenn Greenwald e Max blumenthal or Miriam Elder and Charlie Wurzel from Buzzfeed, sites as Moon of Alabama, can sing victory. Every other news agency that ran those fanciful stories needs to own up to what they did.

The tale of the Hamilton 68 panel has no clear analogue in media history, which may give mainstream media writers an excuse not to cover it. They will certainly be under heavy pressure to avoid dealing with this scandal, as almost all of them work for companies responsible for massively spreading the Hamilton panel's idiocy.

This is one of the most significant stories in the Twitter Files. Each of these stories explains something new about how companies like Twitter lost their independence. In the United States, the door has been opened for agencies such as the FBI and DHS (Department of Homeland Security: Department of Homeland Security) pushed for “content moderation,” after Congress admonished Twitter, Facebook, and Google about Russian “interference,” a phenomenon that needed to be seen as an ongoing threat that required vigilance. redoubled.

“I really believe that the United States is under attack,” was how reacted Hamilton 68 co-founder Laura Rosenberger after seeing the tweets from citizens like Sonya Monsour, David Horowitz and @holbornlolz.

The history of Hamilton 68 shows how the ghost of permanent “Russian interference” works. The magic trick was generated by a confluence of interests: between think tanks, media and government. Before, we could only speculate. Now, we know that the "Russian menace" was, at least in this case, just a bunch of ordinary Americans, dressed up to look like a "Red menace". Fraudulent journalist Jayson Blair had a hell of an imagination, but even he couldn't come up with such an obscene scheme. Shame on all the media that didn't renounce these stories!

"Hoaxers like the Hamilton 68 don't have to agree with us," says Joe Lauria of the News Consortium. "But they should leave us alone."

*Matt Taibbi is a journalist. He is the author, among other books, of Hate Inc.: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another (Or books).

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in Racket News/Substack.

 

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