The latest edition of the Twitter Files from investigative journalist Matt Taibbi revealed that media outlets, academics, and policymakers who cited an initiative meant to track supposed Russian disinformation fell for a not-so-elaborate scam.
Hamilton 68, a computerized dashboard that monitored purported Russian bot infiltration, tracked 644 accounts supposedly linked to “Russian influence activities online,” according to an article and a social media thread posted by Taibbi. Executives at Twitter “reverse-engineered” the list of accounts out of a concern that the users were influencing the American political conversation on behalf of the Russians. Only 36 of the 644 accounts were registered in Russia, while many of the rest were ordinary American accounts.
Executives wrote in internal company emails that the accounts were “neither strongly Russian nor strongly bots” and concluded there was “no evidence to support the statement that the dashboard is a finger on the pulse of Russian information.”
Yoel Roth, the social media company’s former Trust and Safety lead, characterized the project as “bulls***” in one of the messages. He noted that the site “falsely accuses a bunch of legitimate right-leaning accounts of being Russian bots” and earns “traction around partisan trends” to assert that “any right-leaning content is propagated by Russian bots.”
The project was launched by former FBI agent Clint Watts and received backing from the German Marshall Fund and the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The latter entity, a bipartisan think tank, has an advocacy panel that includes former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, former American ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, current Biden administration senior adviser John Podesta, and Bulwark editor-at-large Bill Kristol.
Allegations of collusion with Russia similarly followed former President Donald Trump throughout his administration; Robert Mueller, a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, investigated claims that the Trump campaign illegally coordinated with Russian agents to influence the 2016 election, eventually concluding that no such evidence existed.
Taibbi found that media outlets such as NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones cited supposed data on Russian disinformation from Hamilton 68 on “hundreds if not thousands” of occasions. He noted that the outlets often used the dashboard to discredit various political figures, such as Tulsi Gabbard and Brett Kavanaugh, by linking them to purported disinformation operations.
Academics at postsecondary institutions like Harvard University and Princeton University also cited Hamilton 68, as did lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).
Social media users contacted by Taibbi were surprised to learn they were supposed purveyors of Russian disinformation. Conservative writer David Horowitz and businessman Dennis Michael Lynch were implicated in the Hamilton 68 list, as were “a range of political dissidents, including leftists, anarchists, and humorists,” according to Taibbi.
Many were unsuspecting everyday Americans. “I am a 73-year-old snowbird in Florida,” one individual said. “Supposedly in a free world, we are being watched at many levels, by what we say online,” said another individual, who told Taibbi she had experienced political persecution in Lebanon before moving to the West.
Previous editions of the Twitter Files, an initiative from independent journalists based on emails and other internal company documents provided by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, have shown that federal law enforcement policed content on the platform and asked executives to remove certain posts. There existed “an organized effort by representatives of the intelligence community” aimed at “senior executives at news and social media companies,” according to journalist Michael Shellenberger.