The online groundswell urging the release of House Republicans’ attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation appears thus far to be organically American—not Russian propaganda, a source familiar with Twitter’s internal analysis told The Daily Beast.
#ReleaseTheMemo has been trending widely since late last week. It urges the House intelligence committee to release what its Republican authors claim is a finding of widespread FBI misconduct aimed at surveilling and discrediting Donald Trump. Democrats in Congress counter-accuse the Republicans of cobbling together a deceptive memo aimed at discrediting the FBI and Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump team over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
On Tuesday, two Democratic leaders urged Facebook and Twitter to conduct an “in-depth forensic examination” of #ReleaseTheMemo to determine the extent of Russian propaganda promoting the hashtag. They relied on a report from the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy claiming that #ReleaseTheMemo was had become the favorite hashtag of Russian-sponsored Twitter accounts. (The report did not make any judgements about such activity on Facebook.)
“If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, two California Democrats, wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
But 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.
Rules of Engagement
There are reasons for skepticism about both the source’s claim and Alliance for Securing Democracy’s contrary findings.
Russian influence accounts did, in fact, send an outsize number of tweets about #ReleaseTheMemo—simply not enough for those accounts to reach the top of Twitter's internal analysis.
It is also still unclear how Twitter is measuring what counts as Russian propaganda. As The Daily Beast has extensively documented, Russian troll farms use cutout accounts to launder their message in order to appear authentically American.
Similarly, accounts like Trump Jr.’s have vastly more followers than the egg-avatar’ed accounts the Kremlin uses to drop their messages into the information bloodstream. Measuring engagement on a hashtag shows influence that may indeed be authentically American – but can simultaneously obscure the origin of that message.
Stories by Business Insider and several other news outlets last week claimed that Russian-linked Twitter accounts had started pushing #ReleaseTheMemo, along with stateside members of the GOP. The stories cited Hamilton 68, a project by the non-profit Alliance for Security Democracy to display “data about Russian propaganda efforts in near real-time.” created.
Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism agent who helped create Hamilton 68, said it’s likely true that the tweets with the most long-term engagement came from Republicans. That doesn’t mean Russian Twitter accounts were not also steadfastly pushing the hashtag, he said.
“Hamilton 68 does not measure the population of Twitter,” Watts told The Daily Beast. “The preponderance of tweets in these situations is definitely going to be Republican. What Hamilton 68 is trying to reveal is when the Kremlin steps in and sees an opportunity to amplify a divisive narrative against democratic institutions.”
Watts said Hamilton 68 “is nothing more than one sample of a Russian influence network that we’ve watched for years and tells you what that network is talking about or amplifies.”
He pointed out the substantial influence of the progenitor of the hashtag – Rep. King – along with the campaign to push it by both American Republicans and more opaque entities, like Wikleaks.
“Wikileaks is the one of the ones that amplified it the most outside of King. We see that almost anything Wikileaks puts out is blown out of those Russian troll networks. They’ve been a known proxy,“ said Watts.
High-profile far-right personalities and alt-right forums began pushing the hashtag shortly after a tweet by Rep. King on January 18th, which ended with: “It was #neverTrump & #alwaysHillary. #releasethememo.”
Users on 4chan’s /pol/ board and Reddit’s pro-Trump meeting ground r/The_Donald have since turned the hashtag into a rallying cry, imploring fans to tweet the hashtag. “GET #RELEASETHEMEMO TO 1,000,000 TWEETS! HALFWAY THERE!” reads one post, which reached r/The_Donald’s front page last Friday.
Accounts on Reddit and 4chan are anonymous, and both are regularly used for targeted harassment campaigns, plus attempts to game Twitter’s trending algorithm with coordinated posts.
A ‘Deliberately Misleading’ Memo
At issue is what is said to be an accusatory memo that Democrats say misattributes the provenance of a foreign-intelligence surveillance warrant – i.e., something that the FBI could not unilaterally issue, instead requiring approval from a judge on a secret court – to the now-infamous dossier of salacious claims assembled last year by the British ex-spy Christopher Steele.
The Daily Beast reported Monday that the Trump-aligned Republicans on the intelligence committee who authored the memo, principally chairman and close White House ally Devin Nunes, have withheld the memo from its FBI targets. Those Republicans have been leading a charge against FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, a Trump adversary since his wife ran unsuccessfully for Virginia state office as a Democrat in 2015, with the support of Hillary Clinton pal Gov. Terry McAuliffe – before the Trump-Russia probe began.
The pressure from Trump and his allies on the FBI and the Justice Department over special prosecutor Mueller’s investigation is so intense that Trump’s FBI director, Chris Wray, had threatened to resign over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ insistence that Wray remove McCabe, Axios reported.
Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat and the ranking member of the House judiciary committee, said on Tuesday he had read the underlying intelligence behind the memo and called it bogus.
“Let me as clear as I can be in an unclassified setting: the Nunes memo is a deliberately misleading document,” Nadler said.
“I can understand why President Trump, Chairman Nunes, and hundreds of Russian Twitter accounts want to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation—but I cannot believe that anyone who thinks these allegations are true has actually read the documents on which the memo purports to be based.”
Twitter revealed last Friday that it had discovered over 1,000 new Twitter accounts tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or “troll farm,” since Twitter released its first trove of Russian accounts to investigators in October.
The company has not released the identity of the 1,000 accounts, or the content they pushed, to the public, and they are no longer discoverable online.
Representatives for both Facebook and Twitter indicated to The Daily Beast that they were mulling Feinstein and Schiff’s call for forensic analysis on the hashtag campaign.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the company was reviewing the lawmaker’s letter.
"Twitter is committed to addressing malicious activity on our platform, and we take any assertions of such activity very seriously. We look forward to working closely with Senator Feinstein and Congressman Schiff to address their questions,” a company spokesperson said.