Information warfare expert Molly McKew, who advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's government from 2009-13 and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-15, writes a detailed analysis about how Russian "bots" combined with deep-dyed Trump fans to push the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag to the top of Twitter and Facebook. The article is bolstered by research from the social media intelligence group New Media Frontier.
McKew begins by asserting that the vote to release the Nunes memo was "the culmination of a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers. And it worked. By the time the memo got to the president, its release was a foregone conclusion – even before he had read it." Computation propaganda, which she defines as "the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior," has "been used, successfully, to manipulate the perceptions of the American public and the actions of elected officials. [The] campaign was fueled by, and likely originated from, computational propaganda. It is critical that we understand how this was done and what it means for the future of American democracy." The #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag erupted on Twitter on January 18, a day before the media began writing about the memo and the possibility it would be released. Over the next few days, McKew writes, the hashtag and its accompanying posts went from being merely a marker for discussion of the memo into "multiple iterations of an expanding conspiracy theory about missing FBI text messages and imaginary secret societies plotting internal coups against the president." The hashtag "provided an organizational framework for this comprehensive conspiracy theory, which, in its underpinnings, is meant to minimize and muddle concerns about Russian interference in American politics." So many identified Russian bots – automated Twitter accounts designed to promote pro-Russian and pro-Trump issues and discussions, many known to be part of Russian disinformation efforts – began promoting the hashtag that Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees wrote to Twitter and Facebook asking them to determine whether the hashtag was being driven by Russian accounts. Twitter released a report saying the hashtag was an "organic" American campaign linked to "Republican" accounts. McKew writes that regardless of the origin of the accounts promoting the hashtag, the campaign to #ReleaseTheMemo "is computational propaganda – meaning artificially amplified and targeted for a specific purpose – and it dominated political discussions in the United States for days." The hashtag campaign went from nothing to a dominant position on Twitter within hours, making it impossible to ignore. The "fake news" discussions, McKew writes, miss the point. The disinformation campaigns are not just about spreading false information, but are about changing the behavior of the consumer.
On the afternoon of January 18, multiple Republican Congressional members began tweeting about the Nunes memo. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) appeared on Fox Business just before 4pm that day and gave an interview about the memo. The hashtag itself was not mentioned by Gaetz or his colleagues. The hashtag first appeared in a post by Twitter user "underthemoraine" five minutes after Gaetz's appearance on Fox. The account also tags Donald Trump's Twitter account. The "underthemoraine" account has been restricted by Twitter for "unusual activity." McKew believes "underthemoraine" is a real person, a Michigan resident who regularly posts about conservative issues and the latest conspiracy theories. She writes that the account has a very small number of followers, but "is followed by several accounts that are probable bots as well as by the verified account of the Michigan Republican Party," whose account used the hashtag before 6am the next morning. The Michigan GOP account probably auto-follows other accounts that engage with it, McKew says, making it a likely resource for Russian bots. Minutes after the Moraine account posts the hashtag, a probable Russian bot account called "KARYN19138585" promotes the hashtag, citing the Moraine account. The KARYN account was registered in 2012, and was nearly dormant between July 2012 and November 2013 except for a few posts deriding President Obama and praising the GOP. The account stopped posting entirely until June 2016, the time period identified by the FBI as when Russian operations designed to sabotage the US elections were at their height. KARYN began tweeting more and more frequently, and by October 11 the account was issuing dozens of posts a day, including links to YouTube officials and directly to political officials and media figures. It replied very frequently to posts by the Trump team and related journalists. The content was almost entirely political. In October, KARYN was tweeting on a near-hourly basis about radical Islam, Bill Clinton's multiple alleged affairs, and WikiLeaks – three of the most heavily promoted issues being farmed by Russian disinformation accounts. KARYN spent little time promoting Trump by this point; like the Russians, it focused almost entirely on attacking Clinton. After November 9, when Trump won the election, KARYN went almost entirely silent. McKew determines that "KARYN is a bot – a bot that follows a random Republican guy in Michigan with 70-some followers. Why?" She answers: "Bots both gather and disseminate information – the 'gathering' part is important, and rarely discussed. So, let's say KARYN was created, abandoned (as many fake accounts often are), and then reactivated and 'slaved' to an effort to smear Clinton online. Why would a bot account follow some nobody in Michigan? It would be fair to say that if you were setting up accounts to track views representative of a Trump-supporter, [the Moraine acount] would be a pulse to keep a finger on – the virtual Michigan 'man in the diner' or 'taxi driver' that journalists are forever citing as proof of conversations with real, nonpolitical humans in swing states. KARYN follows hundreds of such accounts, plus conservative media, and a lot of other bots." KARYN was the third Twitter account to use the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag, triggering a wave of automated bot networks to pick up and retweet the hashtag.
"Make It Trend"
The second was "well_in_usa," almost certainly another Russian bot account. (The account's posts have almost all been deleted.) Like KARYN, it promoted a gush of anti-Clinton content before the election, and went largely silent until it began retweeting the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag. Well's tweets targeted Matt Gaetz's Twitter account as well as Fox News reporters and other far-right conservative pundits such as Bill Mitchell. "This was, primarily, what the Well account did – retweet and reply to accounts with hashtags included, marking them into messaging campaigns," McKew writes. "Well is engaging and directing traffic to a specific group of accounts on specific discussions. These accounts often have short shelf lives, appearing as needed and disappearing when their usefulness has passed (or once flagged by Twitter)." The fourth account to push the hashtag is "Queen Covfefe," a real Trump supporter in South Carolina. She routinely bombards Twitter with some 65 tweets a day, every day, a similar level as the average Russian disinformation bot. She retweeted the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag hundreds of times in a single day, and routinely retweets "Follow this for a follow back!" lists, many of which contain bot accounts. Her work, like many others, is about what McKew calls "network, echo chamber, fake influence and amplification." Queen, a more prominent Trump supporting account called "Stonewall Jackson" (which may be a bot), and others began pushing the hashtag around 6pm, urging one another and others to "make it trend." McKew writes: "These accounts are organizers and amplifiers. Technically, they both probably qualify as 'cyborgs' – accounts with 'human conductors' that are partly automated and linked to networks that automatically amplify content." McKew calls Queen "a willing human bot," having her account set to automatically repost content with selected hashtags and memes, and working deliberately to game Twitter to "make things trend." McKew writes: "She may be a real person with real beliefs in Trump and what he represents, but when she tweets hundreds of times over the course of a week using #releasethememo, while artificially enhancing her followers (using the 'follow-back' lists, etc.) and exhorting others to amplify the hashtag, she is just as much an element of computational propaganda against the American public as a Russian bot."
Bots, Trolls and Cyborgs
McKew says the results of analysis show that most of the early promoters of the hashtag meet the criteria for what she calls "bot/troll/cyborg suspicion." The accounts post and repost tweets featuring the same keywords, emojis (usually American flags at the end of the name), specific numbers or numerical patterns associated with bots, names changed to hashtags, and quick shifts between reliable right-wing topics such as Benghazi, the NFL, boycott, the Nunes memo, and the Clinton emails. "There is little chance an organic or incidental community, even of friends or acquaintances, would look this way online so holistically, tweeting together in such tight intervals," she notes. Some of the accounts involved in the early promotion of the hashtag have now been suspended or restricted. Many of the accounts used were newly created, with many of them disappearing after the hashtag appeared. It's conclusive that the #releasethememo hashtag was "carried forward by automated accounts overnight after it begins to trend. It continued to do so from its appearance until the memo was released."
The hashtag tweets may not have reached the sheer volume of the tweets promoting or commenting on massive nationwide events such as January 2018's Women's March or an NFL playoff game, but they didn't need to. Instead, they targeted prominent Trump supporters in Congress as well as Trump himself. Representatives Jim Jordan (R-OH), Steve King (R-IA), Mark Meadows (R-NC), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and others among the loudest of Trump's Congressional supporters were bombarded almost from the outset with the hashtag, augmented by reposts from "amplifier" accounts of far-right propaganda also inundating the targeted Republicans. The purpose is not just to "game" Twitter's algorithms and get the hashtag trending, but to get the attention and the cooperation of the targeted lawmakers. Zeldin was one of the first to respond, and among the most frequent tweeters/retweeters. (He first tweeted #releasethememo just before 8:30pm that same night, less than five hours after its creation. Shortly thereafter, prominent verified alt-right and far-right pundits and other figures began posting the hashtag after Zeldin posted it. WikiLeaks joined the fray before 10pm. Before midnight, King, Meadows and Gaetz had all tweeted the hashtag, as did Fox News pundit and host Laura Ingraham, who has over 2 million followers. By that point, the hashtag was being repeated 250,000 per hour. By 3am, Mitchell reposted a Breitbart article about the hashtag trending. "The hashtag had become the organizing framework for multiple stories and lanes of activity, focusing them into one column, which got a big boost from right-stream media and twitter personalities." When Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke in favor of releasing the memo, his Twitter account had received over 225,000 messages featuring the hashtag. Trump was influenced by some of the congressmen whose Twitter accounts were being inundated with hashtagged posts, as was Trump's favorite Fox pundit, Sean Hannity, who soon became one of the hashtag's loudest promoters.
Campaigns like the Twitter hashtag offensive work because no one is effectively countering them, McKew writes. It is beyond belief for Twitter and Facebook to act as if they have no idea this is happening, or how they might curtail it. She writes that "modern Russian propaganda is highly effective because so many diverse messaging elements are so highly integrated. Far-right elements in the United States have learned to emulate this strategy, and have used it effectively with their own computational propaganda tactics – as demonstrated by the 'Twitter rooms' and documented alt-right bot-nets pushing a pro-Trump narrative." McKew is not so much worried about the "fake news" meme campaign as she is the more aggressive "information warfare" being waged on social media. Russians and far-right propagandists are working together, deliberately or not, to skew perceptions away from reality and towards their own "alternate" fact schema. The massive effort to game Twitter and push the #releasethememo hashtag was stunningly successful, McKew writes. It isn't clear how much of the effort was American and how much was Russian. What is clear is that the campaign pushed public awareness of the Nunes memo to the very forefront of the political discussion. "[S]omeone is trying to manipulate us," she writes, "tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or – in the case of #releasethememo – are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own. And, yes, that also reinforces the narrative the Russians have been pushing since 2015: You're on your own; be angry, and burn things down. Would that a leader would step into this breech, and challenge the advancing victory of the bots and the cynical people behind them." (Politico)