It appears that the world’s biggest strawman is ablaze, and those who continue to cling to the rapidly dissolving “evil Russians” narrative to explain away everything from Hillary Clinton’s loss to conservative support for political issues are looking increasingly foolish in light of recent developments.
Even former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thinks the Russia investigation needs to be wrapped up:
Condoleezza Rice To Adam Schiff On Russia Investigation: “Wrap It Up…The Country Needs To Get Back To Business.” pic.twitter.com/mzmU14kdMO
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) March 1, 2018
Keep in mind, there are two stories at play here; the first of course is the “Russian hacking” narrative – which posits that Russia wanted Hillary Clinton to lose the election, so they hacked the email accounts of key Democrats and the DNC and then gave them to WikiLeaks – possibly in coordination with the Trump campaign (an assertion which has more or less been lopped off the theory lately due to a lack of evidence). The second push has been the “Russian troll” narrative – which revolves around the theory that Americans were influenced by Russians purchasing ads and using “bots” on social media platforms – fake accounts which use automated systems to deliver a message or push a hashtag so that it goes viral.
And while Special Counsel Robert Mueller is rumored to be preparing fresh indictments for the Russian hacking group fingered by the largely discredited cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike – the Special Counsel’s case isn’t going to hold water unless he can explain how files can be transferred from the East Coast to Russia at 22.6 MB/s – a speed virtually impossible to achieve from halfway around the world – yet very common for a thumb drive.
With claims of Russian meddling already on shaky ground – the absurd notion that the Kremlin was able to swing the election jumped the shark last month following Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals at a “troll farm.” The official takeaway; those dastardly Russians, with no connection to the Trump campaign, were running a tiny propaganda shop (which had been in operation for years) that had no effect on the outcome of the U.S. election.
The icing on the cake had to be CNN literally dumpster diving in St. Petersburg, Russia outside the “troll farm” in search of hard evidence Mueller’s team must have overlooked.
Mueller’s indictment was immediately shredded by two media professionals close to the Russian meddling claims; Facebook’s VP of advertising, Rob Goldman, and journalist Adrian Chen of The New Yorker – neither of whom we’re guessing voted for Trump.
Goldman, in reaction to Mueller’s indictment, fired off a series of tweets which effectively dismantled claims of Russian election influence. In addition to noting that “The majority of Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election,” the Facebook exec wrote “The main goal of the Russian propaganda and misinformation effort is to divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us.”
Goldman’s comments were immediately picked up and retweeted by President Trump, who pronounced “The Fake News Media never fails.”
The Fake News Media never fails. Hard to ignore this fact from the Vice President of Facebook Ads, Rob Goldman! https://t.co/XGC7ynZwYJ
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2018
Goldman was admonished by Facebook for his “freelance” thoughts, and issued an apology which amounted to “I couldn’t possibly know everything that Mueller’s team knows, disregard what I said.”
Meanwhile Adrian Chen, who first profiled the indicted Russian troll farm in 2015, sat down with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, where he proceeded to put things in perspective.
Tried to tamp down the troll farm panic on @chrislhayes show last night. It’s 90 people with a shaky grasp of English and a rudimentary understanding of U.S. politics shitposting on Facebook. https://t.co/Y93er6ZMJg
— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) February 20, 2018
“Either I could stay silent and allow the conversation to be dominated by those pumping up the Russian threat, or I could risk giving fodder to Trump and his allies,” Chen wrote in the New Yorker. In describing the MSNBC interview, Chen added “I didn’t think that what amounted to a social-media marketing campaign—one whose supposed architects had a rudimentary grasp of the English language—could sow so much discord on its own.”
In addition to Goldman and Chen, Mollie Hemmingway of The Federalist notes: “Masha Gessen is a vehement and long-standing Putin critic. She has written a book warning about Putin and many articles comparing Putin and Trump. Even she, in a new article for The New Yorker, mocks the hysteria over the troll farms and says of the Russian bot operation that it was “not at all sophisticated, and about as bold as, say, keying a neighbor’s car under the cover of night.”
Even uber-liberal news outlet BuzzFeed published an article last Wednesday, titled “Stop Blaming Russian Bots For Everything,”
Russian bots were blamed for driving attention to the Nunes memo, a Republican-authored document on the Trump-Russia probe. They were blamed for pushing for Roy Moore to win in Alabama’s special election. And here they are wading into the gun debate following the Parkland shooting. “[T]he messages from these automated accounts, or bots, were designed to widen the divide and make compromise even more difficult,” wrote the New York Times in a story following the shooting, citing little more than “Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia.”
This is, not to mince words, total bullshit.
And perhaps the most startling admission that it’s time to stick a fork in the Russian bot story is a February 20 article in the Washington Post – of all places, entitled “The U.S. political conversation is not and probably never was driven by Russian social-media bots.”
But reading the ads included in the indictment and looking at other ads released publicly by Facebook, it’s hard to come away with the sense that these were decision-makers for many voters. It’s often hard to measure the effectiveness of political advertising, but these ads seem particularly mediocre.
Feeding the ongoing Russiaphobia is a propaganda website run by The Alliance for Securing Democracy called Hamilton 68 – which claims to track Russian bots. It’s impossible to verify their claims, as the group does not disclose their methodology – yet anti-Trump politicians and pundits alike repeat its claims uncritically. On their advisory council are NeverTrumpers Bill Kristol and David Kramer – the guy John McCain sent to London to meet with Christopher Steele and bring back the discredited Trump-Russia dossier.
Less than a year ago, Bill Kristol joined with ex-CIA officials, Marco Rubio’s top aide & a few Dem hawks, and created a new group purporting to track Russian Twitter activity based on secret designations. It now dominates every headline, every pronouncement uncritically accepted https://t.co/Lo3Nrt5y1b
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 19, 2018
US media outlets love to accuse other countries of being easily propagandized. They should look at who created “Hamilton68,” the full secrecy behind it, and how mindlessly US media treats its decrees as truth. It’s an amazing propaganda success https://t.co/iKjKyJc0Xy
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 19, 2018
With virtually every recent controversial topic which has made headlines pitting conservatives against leftists, Hamilton 68 will claim – absent any evidence, that “Russia” is pushing the conservative side of the argument.
For example, Hamilton 68 was behind claims by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) that Russian bots were behind a campaign to release a memo created by the House Intel Committee GOP majority:
On January 23, public interest in the memo from the majority of the intelligence committee had been high, as evidenced by the demand to #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag on Twitter and Facebook. When the hashtag went viral, Schiff had a theory that it wasn’t the American public that was interested in abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Nope, it was Russians! Secret Russian bots were trying to make it look like Americans were interested in FISA abuse against a Trump campaign affiliate.
When Schiff advanced his theory that it was Russian bots — not Americans — who cared about FISA abuse, he received typical friendly media coverage. But when Twitter and Facebook refuted the claim, media outlets either downplayed it or pretended it didn’t matter.
Hamilton 68’s claim — later refuted by Twitter and Facebook — formed the entire basis of Schiff’s theory that it was Russian bots, not real Americans, who wanted to learn about FISA abuse by the FBI. Asked to respond to Hamilton 68’s claim, Twitter responded, “Because the Hamilton Dashboard’s account list is not available to the public, we are unable to offer any specific context on the accounts it includes.” They added, “We have offered to review the list of accounts contained in the Dashboard and this offer remains open.” –The Federalist
BuzzFeed notes: “The thing is, 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
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.”
Meanwhile, talking heads such as MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin have been more than happy to promulgate reports based on Hamilton 68’s nebulous Russian bot tracker:
After the success of the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, Russian-influenced Twitter accounts are test-running other hashtags designed to stoke anger—particularly among Trump supporters—against so-called ‘deep state’ forces, according to analysts at Hamilton 68. https://t.co/xeNPPTlTof
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 11, 2018
So, as the Russian bot narrative implodes – the lens of history will mock the legacies of those who fell on their sword defending it to its last breath. Based on the murky evidence surrounding the Russian hacking claims, we expect it to suffer a similar fate. More importantly, the message from cooler heads on both sides of the aisle is clear: time to move on.