Days before yesterday’s Twitter Files report about Hamilton 68, I wrote the public relations officers of both of the sites’ parent organizations, the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) and the German Marshall Fund (GMF). I told them I was in possession of the Hamilton 68 list, which purported to track “Russian influence activities.” I said I had a slew of internal Twitter documents that among other things identified their project as “bullshit.” Toward the end I added:
Given the sheer quantity of news stories sourced to Hamilton 68, this has to go down as one of the great media frauds of all time. Unless you have an explanation for how and why hundreds of non-Russians like Dennis Michael Lynch, Patrick Hennigsen, Joe Lauria, and [I inserted the name of a San Diego school board member] came to be on this list, there’s no other conclusion.
I hope you will treat this matter with respect and answer this query. My story is going to identify not just people like Clint Watts but members of the ASD advisory board as party to this.
The story eventually published, “Move Over, Jayson Blair: Meet Hamilton 68, The New King of Media Fraud,” was based on email assessments of Twitter executives like Yoel Roth and Nick Pickles, the forensic analysis Roth had done in 2017 and which was excerpted yesterday, and interviews with people on the list. These elements — especially the interviews — made for a pretty ironclad case that the much-ballyhooed Hamilton 68 “dashboard” was a sham, that took real opinions of real people and falsely declared them part of a “network” of “Russian influence activities.”
On the remote chance Hamilton 68 had inside information legitimizing the linking of Dennis Michael Lynch, David Horowitz, and @TrumpDyke to “Russian influence activities,” I not only reached out to Hamilton’s creators, but when they were quiet, threw a tantrum on Twitter, tagging every member of the ASD advisory board in an effort to hear from them pre-publication. I genuinely wanted to hear an innocent explanation if they had one. They still said nothing. Only after the story blew up online yesterday did they put out an explanation.
“FACT SHEET: Hamilton 68 Dashboard (2017-2018)” is embarrassing. I’ve been told by several people since yesterday that Clint Watts is a sweet guy and a devoted family man. But the response he put out starts dissembling in the lead paragraph:
By analyzing a dynamic list of more than 600 Twitter accounts linked, wittingly or unwittingly , to Russian influence activities online, the dashboard provided a window into Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts online…
Let’s explore “wittingly or unwittingly.”
Forget that Hamilton 68’s original dashboard said it was “tracking Russian propaganda” and “Russian disinformation” (and not tweets by Consortium, The Sirius Report, and Liberals are Dumb ). Forget even that co-founder Jamie Fly regularly compared the Russian cyber threat to al-Qaeda, and used language describing the Hamilton 68 accounts as if they were a front for a league of sleeper cells:
The approximately 600 accounts are a sample of a much wider network of pro-Kremlin accounts… These accounts should be viewed as a sample of distinct networks of Russian-linked accounts that were identified over the course of roughly three years of analysis. They are very likely only the tip of the iceberg.
Hamilton’s claims were even more concrete than that. Its founders told reporters they couldn’t disclose account names because “the Russians will simply shut them down,” implying direct control of Moscow. This is from a Politico interview with co-founder Laura Rosenberger:
Here’s one of Hamilton’s favorite journalists, Ken Dilanian of NBC, offering the same line about how Russia would simply marionette all of its cyber-agents back into darkness if the list were to be released:
By yesterday, the site was claiming its reason for secrecy was that it “took data privacy seriously and worked to maintain the anonymity of monitored accounts to avoid doxing or harassment.” This explanation changed a lot over time. We’ll come back to that, because it’s important.
What if reporters simply misunderstood Hamilton 68? What if the media overreacted? That was the next explanation:
The dashboard’s original methodology acknowledged that “the content within the network is complex and should be understood in a nuanced way.” Members of the media, pundits, and even some lawmakers often failed to include appropriate context when using the dashboard’s data…
We’re meant to believe that through a propaganda campaign that began in the summer of 2017 and saw people like Watts, Fly, and co-founder Laura Rosenberger make regular breathless public appearances about the Russian menace they were tracking, in stories with headlines like “The Russian Bots Are Coming,” was — a misunderstanding. Reporters went overboard, ignoring Hamilton demands for context and “nuance”! Last night they even disavowed the notion that they were responsible for headlines about “bots.” This was first on a list of “false or misleading claims”:
Claim: The Hamilton 68 team selected accounts based on a determination that they were “Russian bots.”
Here’s Watts on NPR on August 20, 2017, responding to a question from host Lulu Garcia-Navarro, who introduced Watts by saying, “The #FireMcMaster hashtag was promoted by computer software known as bots , according to our next guest,” before adding:
“What’s the evidence that Russia is using bots to spread stories against McMaster, and how certain can you be of the source?”
WATTS: So we start with Russian state-sponsored outlets. We look at what they’re talking about. We then move to what we see are overt Russian supporters. These are people that openly declare and state that they’re pushing Russian propaganda and Russian interests. And then over time, we watch as this community grows. And that’s when we start to pick up on the bots that amplify it . Once we can identify the message, we essentially do a key network monitor. We build out some algorithms, and we zero down on what is being amplified the most. That’s where we pick up on the bots .
Did Watts ever say, “Lulu, they weren’t all bots? In fact, one’s the editor of Consortium , and another does Trump-themed porn”? He did not.
In this early period, Hamilton’s spokespeople never insisted on “nuance,” nor did its patrons. On Christmas day, 2017, two members of the ASD advisory committee — former acting CIA chief Michael Morell and former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers — wrote a piece called, “Russia never stopped its cyberattacks on the United States” in the Washington Post. The co-written piece cited Hamilton 68 in asserting, again without equivocation, that they were tracking social media cyberattacks directed by Moscow:
Moscow used these accounts to discredit the FBI after it was revealed that an agent had been demoted for sending anti-Donald Trump texts; to attack ABC News for an erroneous report involving President Trump and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser; to critique the Obama administration for allegedly “green lighting” the communication between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak; and to warn about violence by immigrants after a jury acquitted an undocumented Mexican accused of murdering a San Francisco woman.
The first link in that passage was to the Hamilton dashboard. As the site Moon of Alabama wittily noted at the time, the top trend on the board that day was actually “Merry Christmas.” In between discrediting the FBI and trying to stir up the locals around the trial of a Mexican immigrant in San Francisco, “Moscow” took time for holiday greetings:
A few weeks later, Rosenberger gave an interview to Vice called “The Former Hillary Clinton Advisor Tracking Russian Bots and Trolls.” She spoke about Hamilton’s relationship with the media:
ROSENBERGER: We do a lot of work with journalists to try to better inform their reporting. Journalists watch the dashboard, see what stories are trending, and think about why they might be promoting this particular story. They can incorporate this knowledge into their reporting. We also do a lot of work with policy makers to make sure they are informed.
This was after Fortune wrote a story called, “Former FBI Agent Says Russian Twitter Bots Were Behind Push for McMaster Firing,” after Mother Jones wrote “Twitter Bots Distorted the 2016 Election—Including Many Likely From Russia,” and after Bloomberg wrote “Pro-Russian Bots Sharpen Online Attacks for 2018 U.S. Vote.” Rosenberger’s Vice interview was also just before “policymakers” like congressman Adam Schiff and Senator Dianne Feinstein cited them in issuing a joint statement about “Russian Bot Activity in the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign.”