“By now you know the drill: massive news event happens, journalists scramble to figure out what’s going on, and within a couple hours the culprit is found — Russian bots….This is, not to mince words, total bullshit.”
That was from a story two days ago in BuzzFeed, which is rather ironic given that publication’s leading role in pushing the whole Russiagate narrative: for anyone who’s been in a cave, the claims that the Kremlin hacked the 2016 presidential election, colluded with the Trump campaign and — in what is now the preferred catchphrase of virtually the entire media — sought to “sow discord” among Americans and undermine our thriving, vibrant democracy.
BuzzFeed raised an interesting point: “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.” This entity was “founded by a group of respected researchers,” BuzzFeed said, including Clint Watts, who was the key source for its story.
Hamilton claims to monitor 600 Twitter accounts that are “linked to Russian influence efforts online.” But, as BuzzFeed noted, the accounts cannot all be “directly traced back to Kremlin efforts, or even necessarily to Russia,” and it quotes Watts saying: “They are not all in Russia. We don’t even think they’re all commanded in Russia — at all. We think some of them are legitimately passionate people that are just really into promoting Russia.”
“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” Watts was also quoted as saying, adding that the whole narrative had been “overdone.”
Hey, this is all great to know, but it’s been long apparent that Watts is an ideologue with a personal stake in pumping the Russiagate narrative. So it’s a bit late in the game for BuzzFeed to have finally figured out that he and Hamilton might not be entirely reliable. Indeed, it’s hard to see how journalists have so long treated Hamilton as a reputable, honest entity.
Watts, a former FBI special agent, is a senior fellow at the industry-dominated Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University and a fellow at the conservative, defense industry-backed Foreign Policy Research Institute. During Cold War I, the FPRI was a Strangelovian organization that, according to this account, viewed nuclear war with the Soviet Union as inevitable and urged the U.S. government to prepare for it. It also worked with the Pentagon to try to keep soldiers stationed overseas from being brainwashed by “crafty foreign enemies.”
Watts brings the same sort or measured analysis to Russiagate. “Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election represents not only the greatest ‘Active Measures’ success in Russian history but the swiftest and most pervasive influence effort in world history,” he wrote earlier this year. “Never has a country, in such a short period of time, disrupted the international order through the use of information as quickly and with such sustained effect as Russia has in the last four years.”
Hamilton is a project of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, whose board of advisors includes some of the most ardent proponents of the Russiagate narrative (and of an aggressive American foreign and defense policy): Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security; Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia; and, naturally, jack-of-all-wars Bill Kristol.
Key staffers at the Alliance include Laura Rosenberger, a foreign policy adviser to the Clinton campaign who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, and Jamie Fly, a longtime neocon activist who opposed Obama’s “Russian Reset” and was an adviser to Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. Because Rosenberger is a Democrat and Fly a Republican, the Alliance is habitually described as “bipartisan.” The term may be technically accurate, but the enterprise is reflexively conservative, hawkish, pro-industry and anti-Trump.
Suggesting that Hamilton and the Alliance are independent, as media accounts routinely do, is like saying Sean Hannity can be counted on for impartial analysis of the Trump administration. “America is under attack, has been under attack, remains under attack, and … the U.S. government is not doing enough about it,” Rosenberger said in a recent story at Politico. (“The Russian Bots Are Coming. This Bipartisan Duo Is On It.”)
For the past year Watts and the Hamilton gang have been the go-to sources for journalists looking for a quote on Russian influence in the election. Watts has been cited by the Washington Post, CNN, Newsweek, Mother Jones, the New York Times and the Daily Beast, among various outlets at the forefront of the Russiagate hysteria. A few weeks back, Hamilton’s work was cited in a Washington Times op-ed that said Vladimir Putin “is running a dezinformatsiya offensive beyond Joseph Stalin’s wildest dreams.”
Look, Putin is a thug. Russia surely meddled in the U.S. election in one way or another (though nothing suggests its actions, whatever they were, changed the outcome). Trump is repellent and so are his policies. But Russiagate and bot hysteria only serve them both.
Trump is no doubt right that Russians are “laughing their asses of” at the U.S. hysteria. It must be nice to be a superpower again. Meanwhile, media overkill and retractions just help Trump shore up support with Republicans and have created, quite predictably, an intense climate of paranoia and fear.
In one of the loopiest stories of recent times, the New York Times wrote on February 19:
One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate. The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting.
“This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this,” said Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a company that tracks online disinformation campaigns. “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”
One of the most divisive issues in the nation is how to handle guns, pitting Second Amendment advocates against proponents of gun control. And the messages from these automated accounts, or bots, were designed to widen the divide and make compromise even more difficult.
The story also cited the work of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which it described as “a public policy research group in Washington.”
So this is the point we’ve reached. You actually have to stop and think before using a hashtag like #guncontrolnow because that’s enough to make you suspect of being a dupe of Russian trolls or a flat-out traitor.