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Matt Taibbi Isn't Done Calling Out Hamilton 68

AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

On Friday afternoon, Matt Taibbi released the 15th edition of the Twitter Files. While there's been plenty of batches by now, most of them confirming what we already knew or at least suspected, this edition led to a particular kind of outrage regarding how weaponized the Russia narrative was, thanks to Hamilton 68, a project created in August 2017 under the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Later on Friday, Taibbi sent out subsequent tweets, teasing a further response to Hamilton 68. He has since delivered.

In a Racket post from Saturday, Taibbi stated he reached out to Hamilton 68 for comment, as he "genuinely wanted to hear an innocent explanation if they had one." Tabbi goes on to mention, "They still said nothing. Only after the story blew up online yesterday did they put out an explanation." 

Taibbi has emphasized at length how weak he finds the explanation to be, which is a fact sheet about the Hamilton 68 dashboard from 2017-2018. "Recent reporting on Hamilton disregards the dashboard's published methodology, Hamilton 68 experts' commentary, and Twitter's own data," the fact sheet claims in part. Early on, the response claimed, "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."

Taibbi wasn't buying it, though, as he highlighted different reasons why Hamilton 68 wouldn't disclose the accounts in question, which was due to a fear "the Russians will simply shut them down." But, as Taibbi pointed out, the explanation became how "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.'"

Another aspect that Taibbi highlighted at length in this edition of the Twitter Files was how hard the mainstream media fell for defending Hamilton 68. This especially includes Mother Jones. The response from the fact sheet is to blame the media. "Members of the media, pundits, and even some lawmakers often failed to include appropriate context when using the dashboard's data," it claimed at one point.

Taibbi, highlighting responses from Clint Watts, who led Hamilton 68, pointed to how unsatisfactory such responses were. Watts appeared to double down on a narrative that Russian bots were responsible for trends and hashtags.

Including a whole host of headlines, Taibbi has receipts as to how Watts and co-founder Laura Rosenberger failed to properly correct the record: 

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.”

Watts or Rosenberger never complained about all the headlines. It wasn’t until the New York Times wrote a way-over-the-top piece about social media traffic after the Parkland shooting, “After Florida School Shooting, Russian Bot Army Pounced,” that the Hamilton folks started to get nervous. The Times cited Hamilton 68 in claiming Russian bots were trying to “widen the divide and make compromise even more difficult,” a line so absurd that it moved Buzzfeed to describe it as “not to mince words, total bullshit.”

Taibbi also offers how it is that certain accounts may have gotten under Hamilton 68's radar, which is that "they were really just collecting accounts with certain opinions," especially those, like Russian state media also happened to cover, focused on negative stories about the United States: 

Hamilton 68 took however the same trick further. Now, the types of stories a channel like RT would run were classified as “themes promoted by Pro-Russian media.” I covered the Occupy movement and plenty of “alleged Wall Street greed” for Rolling Stone, which also covered fracking, the surveillance state, and the national debt. Does that mean Rolling Stone “amplified themes promoted by Pro-Russian media”?

To these idiots? I don’t give the Hamilton 68 people the benefit of the doubt of being so stupid that they actually believed, ever, that people who tweet criticisms of the United States are part of a “network” conducting “Russian influence activities.”

I can believe that this is how accounts like @rightsidecomedy and @horowitz39 got on the Hamilton list, but I don’t for a second buy that these people ever believed that such accounts were part of a “network” directed by Moscow, which is how they were described, not just by the media, but by their own patrons like Morell and Rogers (“Moscow used these accounts…”). As researcher Erin Gallagher pointed out in 2019, Hamilton 68 was the #1 source of mainstream press stories about Russian “bots” and “trolls” between 2017-2019, followed by New Knowledge[.]

As Taibbi went on to explain, using Hamilton 68's own words in its response, "unwitting" Americans could get swept up. "Translating: we took ordinary accounts with opinions we deemed to be in sync with Russia, and called them part of a 'network' that was 'engaged with Russian propaganda.' That's it, that's the whole scam. There was no evidence of any network, and the ordinary people these idiots called part of one were used to create those masses of news stories," Taibbi stated.

In Friday's batch of the Twitter Files, Taibbi also highlighted initial hesitation from Twitter, which is covered in this response. Taibbi wasn't buying the excuse from Hamilton 68's fact sheet when it comes to conversations with Twitter that caused the retirement of Hamilton 68 in 2018 and "also informed parts of our design and methodological choices in the creation of Hamilton 2.0, which focuses only on overt, attributable accounts, allowing greater transparency about the accounts being monitored."

"On the issue of where Twitter's 'frustration' was directed, the already-posted Twitter Files emails speak for themselves. There are more like them," Taibbi reminded.

Taibbi concluded Saturday's Ratchet post using expletives and calling the plot a "simple" one. Referring to those involved as "not-very-bright people," he said they "hyped" up the dashboard "as a magic Russian influence barometer to a stampede of willing reporters, and basked in every opportunity to speak on TV and to newspapers and at schools and think tanks and even congress, offering themselves as primary witnesses for a tale about ongoing 'cyber attacks.'"

It was after the "blowback from Twitter and a reporter or two about the contents of their magic box, they retreated to an 'attributable' model," Taibbi pointed out. Highlighting, "But only after roughly 18 months of outright fakery." Quoting Twitter's Yoel Roth, Taibbi called "bulls**t" when it comes to Hamilton 68 "trying to say they were misunderstood."

As if Hamilton 68 had not behaved in a more eyebrow-raising manner, Taibbi published another post to Racket on Sunday, which he referred to as a "Brief Addendum." 

In it, Taibbi highlights a warning from Hamilton 2.0 that it would be "INCORRECT to, without further analysis, label anyone or anything that appears on the dashboard as being connected to state-backed propaganda."

Taibbi has receipts for that, too, and they come from Hamilton 68's own webpage, thanks to the Way Back Machine. There were multiple instances in which Hamilton 68 mentioned Russian accounts [emphasis Taibbi's]:

These accounts were selected for their relationship to Russian-sponsored influence and disinformation campaigns, and not because of any domestic political content.

We have monitored these datasets for months in order to verify their relevance to Russian disinformation programs targeting the United States.

…this will provide a resource for journalists to appropriately identify Russian-sponsored information campaigns.

Hamilton 68 also highlighted how they monitored accounts based on the Russian government and "Bots and Trolls" [emphasis Taibbi's]:

There are two components to the dashboard featured here.

The first section, “Overt Promotion of Content,” highlights trending content from Twitter accounts for media outlets known to be controlled by the Russian government.

The second section, “Content Tweeted by Bots and Trolls,” highlights themes being pushed by Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns.

Even more damning is that in Hamilton 68's response, as Taibbi also highlights, not even the dashboard knew if all accounts involved were as they accused them to be. "The Hamilton 68 team did not individually review or verify all accounts because the focus of the dashboard was to analyze behavior in aggregate networks, not specific accounts," the fact sheet claims. Such targeting becomes even more useless then and incredulous. 

They keep trying to cover up their tracks, yet they don't seem very good at it. 

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