Newsweek: Al Franken resigned because of alt-right bots or something

Huh. I thought it was because he kept grabbing women’s asses and moving in for unwanted kisses.

Or are his accusers members of Putin’s sinister troll army too?

The original version of this story apparently claimed that the Franken takedown was a joint effort of the alt-right and of — ta da — Russian social media bots, until Snopes fact-checked it and humiliated the magazine into hasty revisions. I realize, in light of Russiagate and Friday’s indictment in particular, that Democrats are worried about Russians under the bed. I also realize that they’re broken up about losing funny Senator Al, with even some feminist progressives were writing “on second thought” columns in his defense after calling on him to resign, and would like nothing more than to shift blame for the end of his career from themselves to the right and/or Russia. But it wasn’t the Kremlin who nuked Franken. It was #MeToo. Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons and Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and a dozen other men who got blown up for sexual misconduct not long ago put Democrats in a jam where they felt obliged to act against an offender in their own ranks. “Zero tolerance” means zero tolerance.

A pair of Japan-based websites, created the day before Tweeden came forward, and a swarm of related Twitter bots made the Tweeden story go viral and then weaponized a liberal writer’s criticism of Franken. The bot army—in tandem with prominent real, live members of the far right who have Twitter followers in the millions, such as Mike Cernovich—spewed thousands of posts, helping the #FrankenFondles hashtag and the “Franken is a groper” meme effectively silence the testimonies of eight former female staffers who defended the Minnesota Democrat before he resigned last year…

On December 7, a day after Democrats started calling for Franken to step down, the freshly minted Japan-based fake sites went to work and re-published an article by Ijeoma Oluo, a liberal writer, urging women and activists to stop supporting Franken. Oluo had posted the opinion piece, titled “Dear Al Franken, I’ll Miss You but You Can’t Matter Anymore,” on a much smaller website, with a reach of 10,000 followers.

Suddenly, thousands of apparently fake Twitter accounts were tweeting the title of the article—but linking back to one of the two Japanese-registered fake-news sites created in conjunction with the right-wing anti-Franken campaign.

There’s no allegation here that any accuser’s story about Franken was false. The complaint is fake news sites and alt-righters amplified the calls on him to resign in hopes of putting pressure on the Senate to muscle him out. (So?) But Franken’s fate was in the hands of Senate Democrats, a group with zero interest in what the alt-right thinks or wants, and Senate Republicans who might be more receptive to grassroots righties were in no position to get tough with Franken. That’s because Trump was all-in on Roy Moore in Alabama, a man accused of worse offenses than Franken was. What led Senate Democrats like Kirsten Gillibrand to finally throw Franken overboard wasn’t pressure from Mike Cernovich, it was fear that they’d be accused of a double standard on sexual misconduct later if they came after Moore and, eventually, Trump. They sacrificed Franken knowing that he’d be replaced by another progressive Democrat in the Senate — which is yet another reason why it’s stupid to think Russia was heavily invested in Franken’s demise. What would Moscow gain by unseating him in favor of another Dem from Minnesota?

There’s another problem. The article by Ijeoma Oluo that was amplified by fake news sites and alt-right tweeters, which Newsweek seems to believe was so influential in pressuring Senate Dems to finally push Franken out, was actually published … after Franken had already announced plans to resign. Oluo’s piece even contains the line, “As the reports surfaced last night that you were planning to resign, I was trying to explain to my 10-year-old son why I was so sad about this.” How could the sinister bot army have claimed Franken’s scalp by promoting Oluo’s piece when he’d already offered it?

Snopes also notes that this passage has disappeared from Newsweek’s original story:

By November 17, the trending of “Al Franken” was officially also a Russian intelligence operation, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an organization tracking Russian social media accounts, based on a sample taken that day of 600 of the fake accounts.

Not true, said a spokesman for the Alliance for Securing Democracy. To the extent Russia bots were picking up the Franken stuff, it was most likely because that’s what right-wingers were interested in that day. Russia’s focus was being driven from the bottom up, not the top down, which means there’s no evidence that this was an, ahem, “Russian intelligence operation.” Unless you think the now famous picture of Franken fake-grabbing Tweeden’s breasts, for which he later apologized, is some sort of Putin photoshop.

As I write this, we’re more than 24 hours removed from Newsweek’s garbage story being published with no retraction. Raw Story, a hard-left site that pushed the same angle as Newsweek, has been more circumspect and withdrawn its own story. Oluo, whose op-ed was briefly commandeered by Newsweek for its “the Russians are behind every bad thing” thesis, is calling them out:

Oh, before I forget, the first mention of Tweeden in Newsweek’s piece is a reference to “Hooters pinup girl and lad-mag model Leeann Tweeden.” Why not “radio talk-show host, Fox Sports commentator, and USO entertainer Leeann Tweeden” instead? Obviously, because that would make her accusation of an unwanted aggressive kiss by Franken more credible. Job one here for Newsweek is defending Franken, remember, and implying that Tweeden is some sort of slut raises the possibility that maybe that kiss wasn’t unwanted after all. What makes that extra ironic is that the author of the Newsweek piece, Nina Burleigh, is probably most famous for having once mused during Bill Clinton’s scandal tribulations that she’d be willing to blow him herself in the name of protecting abortion rights. No doubt Burleigh is a staunch feminist when a right-wing politician is accused of misconduct, but when it’s a left-winger on the hot seat she’s evidently willing to take one for the team. Literally.

Here’s New Yorker reporter Adrian Chen gently suggesting that maybe everyone should chill out a bit about Russian Twitter accounts that no one pays much attention to. Exit question: Burleigh writes at one point, “Twitter bots made the Tweeden story go viral and then weaponized a liberal writer’s criticism of Franken.” What does the sinister word “weaponize” mean there? Does it mean … “retweet” or “promote”? What’s the difference between someone sharing a piece they find persuasive with like-minded friends and “weaponizing” it?