Twitter Files #15: Twitter knew Hamilton 68, a media source for Russian online activity, was 'bulls**t'

Matt Taibbi just published installment number 15 in the Twitter files series. This one is about a bogus media fraud known as Hamilton 68.

If one goes by volume alone, this oft-cited neoliberal think-tank that spawned hundreds of fraudulent headlines and TV news segments may go down as the single greatest case of media fabulism in American history. Virtually every major news organization in America is implicated, including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and the Washington PostMother Jones alone did at least 14 stories pegged to the group’s “research.” Even fact-checking sites like Politifact and Snopes cited Hamilton 68 as sources.

Hamilton 68 was and is a computerized “dashboard” designed to be used by reporters and academics to measure “Russian disinformation”. It was the brainchild of former FBI agent (and current MSNBC “disinformation expert”) Clint Watts, and backed by the German Marshall Fund and the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan think-tank. The latter’s advisory panel includes former acting CIA chief Michael Morell, former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, former Hillary for America chair John Podesta, and onetime Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.


Their influence was everywhere:

What was Hamilton 68? It was a secret list of 644 Twitter accounts which were supposedly linked to Russian activity online. While no one in the media or on Twitter knew which accounts Hamilton 68 was looking at, Twitter was able to reverse-engineer it because Hamilton 68 was using their API to look at those accounts. What Twitter found was a bunch of junk and a bunch of English language accounts not based in Russia:

Twitter was checking to see how many of Hamilton’s accounts were spammy, phony, or bot-like. Note that out of 644 accounts, just 36 were registered in Russia, and many of those were associated with RT.

Examining further, Twitter execs were shocked. The accounts Hamilton 68 claimed were linked to “Russian influence activities online” were not only overwhelmingly English-language (86%), but mostly “legitimate people,” largely in the U.S., Canada, and Britain. Grasping right away that Twitter might be implicated in a moral outrage, they wrote that these account-holders “need to know they’ve been unilaterally labeled Russian stooges without evidence or recourse.”

Twitter’s Yoel Roth called the effort “bulls**t” and pointed out it was falsely accusing right-wing sites of being “Russian bots.”


Roth wrote the accounts were “neither strongly Russian nor strongly bots.” Instead the whole thing was just a set up for making wild allegations: “Virtually any conclusion drawn from it will take conversations in conservative circles on Twitter and accuse them of being Russian. “In terms of substance, this is a nothingburger; it’s just a problem of journalists continuing to lean on deeply flawed tools pushed by people looking to capitalize on the bot media frenzy,” Roth wrote.

The list included some well know figures like David Horwitz and some random Trump supporters but also included people on the left. Taibbi contacted some of the people on the list to inform them how they’d been used to drive media coverage:

None of them knew they were on the list and many had never heard of Hamilton 68 or the role they inadvertently played in driving the news.

These people never knew they were used for years to drive hundreds if not thousands of media headlines about supposed Russian bot infiltration of online discussions: about the Brett Kavanaugh hearingsTulsi Gabbard’s campaign, the #ReleaseTheMemo affair, the Parkland shootingDonald Trump’s election, the #WalkAway and #IStandWithLaura hashtags, U.S. missile strikes in Syria, the Bernie Sanders campaign, the “Blexit” movement to peel black voters away from Democrats, calls to fire National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, “attacks” on the Mueller investigation, and countless other issues.


Just to give you an idea of how these reports sounded at the time, here’s a sample of that last link above which goes to a Newsweek story which opens with this:

Russian bots spread stories relating to a controversial uranium deal linked to Hillary Clinton in the days before special counsel Robert Mueller disclosed charges against three former Trump campaign members in his probe of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election.

Hamilton 68, a nonpartisan security research project tracing Russia-tied information warfare on Twitter, examined 58 unique URLs promoted by accounts linked to the Kremlin between October 14 and 20.

So a bunch of Twitter accounts by people in the US, many of them Trump fans, were depicted as “Russia-tied information warfare” based on nothing at all. It wasn’t just media outlets who were promoting Hamilton 68. Elected Democrats were doing so as well including Richard Blumenthal and Adam Schiff.

Twitter knew all of this was junk and Yoel Roth, to his credit wanted to force Hamilton 68 to release their list of accounts (which would completely discredit their method). But he got pushback on that.

By Feb 2018 even the creator of Hamilton 68, Clint Watts, was publicly questioning his own methodology.

…nearly every time you see a story blaming Russian bots for something, you can be pretty sure that the story can be traced back to a single source: the Hamilton 68 dashboard, founded by a group of respected researchers, including Clint Watts and JM Berger, and currently run under the auspices of the German Marshall Fund.

But even some of the people who popularized that metric now acknowledge it’s become totally overblown.

“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” said Watts, the cofounder of a project that is widely cited as the main, if not only, source of information on Russian bots. He also called the narrative “overdone.”


Taibbi concludes:

The Hamilton 68 story shows how the illusion of ongoing “Russian interference” worked. The magic trick was generated via a confluence of interests, between think-tanks, media, and government. Before, we could only speculate. Now we know: the “Russian threat” was, in this case at least, just a bunch of ordinary Americans, dressed up to look like a Red Menace.

This is fraud and it’s also probably the ultimate case of resistance journalism. There was (and still is) and endless desire for negative stories about Trump and conservatives. This bogus metric about Russian bots was an easy way to make those stories sound substantive. Journalists leaning on this dreck weren’t just capitalizing on the bot frenzy. They were capitalizing on the same Russia frenzy the left and the media had been driving since 2016.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member

Trending on HotAir Videos