Accuracy in Media

Two top Democratic lawmakers claimed earlier this week that “#ReleaseTheMemo,” the trending Twitter hashtag calling on Republican House intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) to release a classified memo he wrote, was the work of Russian and Russian-influenced bots on Twitter.

Republican lawmakers who viewed the document, and subsequently tweeted out the hashtag, say the memo proves anti-Trump bias within the FBI and Department of Justice. Among the GOP lawmakers who used the hashtag on social media were Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who described the situation as “worse than Watergate” and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), who called the memo “absolutely shocking.”

Between these two Republican lawmakers alone, the “#ReleaseTheMemo” was tweeted out to more than 140,000 Twitter accounts and retweeted more than 34,000 times. That’s not even counting the separate tweets sent out by King and Meadows, which also used the hashtag or yet another tweet from Donald Trump, Jr., who tweeted the hashtag to his nearly 2.5 million followers.

By Tuesday, the Daily Beast was reporting the “Release the Memo” hashtag began trending because of American users, not Russian bots.

According to the Daily Beast:

“The online groundswell urging the release of House Republicans’ attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation appears thus far to be organically American—not Russian propaganda, a source familiar with Twitter’s internal analysis [said].”

But it was not before Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Twitter and Facebook to conduct an “in-depth forensic examination” after a report from the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy found that “#ReleaseTheMemo” was the top hashtag among “Russia-linked influence networks” on Twitter. Alliance for Securing Democracy said it obtained its data based on “activity from 600 monitored Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations.”

“Content is not necessarily produced or created by Russian government operatives, although that is sometimes the case. Instead, the network often opportunistically amplifies content created by third parties not directly linked to Russia,” Alliance for Securing Democracy’s website stated.

“Common themes for amplification include content attacking the U.S. and Europe, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Russian influence operations also frequently promote extremism and divisive politics in Western countries. Just because the Russia-aligned network monitored here tweets something, that doesn’t mean everyone who tweets the same content is aligned with Russia,” it added.

It’s not clear just how many tweets constitute a hashtag to be considered “trending.” A representative for Twitter did not immediately respond to Accuracy in Media when asked how trending words and phrases are born. Bret Schafer, communications director for Alliance for Securing Democracy, told Business Insider that “on a normal day, our top hashtag is typically used around 400 times in a 48-hour period by the network we track. Schafer added that as of Jan. 19, “#ReleaseTheMemo has been used more than 3,000 times (and five other related hashtags are in the top 10).”

In total, they’ve easily shared more than 4,500 hashtags on the topic in the past two days, and our top URL is [WikiLeaks Founder Julian] Assange’s offer to pay for a copy of the memo,” Schafer said. “That certainly seems to be a sign of a coordinated effort by the bots and trolls.”

Major media outlets largely ignored the reporting of the Daily Beast, however. Instead, they ran with the Democratic narrative that the “Release the Memo” hashtag was trending because of Russians.

“Right-wing demand to #ReleaseTheMemo endorsed by Russian bots, trolls,” NBC News’ headline read on January 19. The Washington Post also made no mention of the Daily Beast’s article in a piece published on Tuesday.

The Post’s headline read “top Democrats warn of ‘ongoing attack by the Russian government’ amid push to publish classified memo,” despite the newspaper acknowledging in the same piece that the Hamilton 68 dashboard, which Alliance for Securing Democracy used to obtain its results, “was never intended to be a representative sample of tweets.”

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