Twitter executives were privately appalled by false claims that Russian bots had overtaken the platform and were being used to peddle right-wing talking points, but they declined to publicly push back as the fable swept headlines, the latest set of the “Twitter Files” reveals.
At the center of the Russian bot theory was Alliance for Securing Democracy’s “Hamilton 68” dashboard created by former FBI counterintelligence official Clint Watts, which purported to track Russian influence on the platform and became widely cited by the media and Democratic lawmakers to discredit conservatives and silence opposing views.
Internal emails reveal that company executives went back and forth over the dashboard’s false claims after Twitter performed its own analysis of platform data.
They warned that the flawed, partisan dashboard would be used to target ordinary users who expressed views that strayed from the liberal mainstream.
“I think we need to just call this out on the bull— it is,” Twitter’s head of trust and safety Yoel Roth wrote to his colleague.
In a later email, Mr. Roth warned that the dashboard “falsely accuses a bunch of legitimate right-leaning accounts of being Russian bots.”
“Virtually any conclusion drawn from it will take conversations in conservative circles on Twitter and accuse them of being Russian,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, the claim swept headlines as pundits used the Russian bot theory to dismiss conservative hashtags that gained traction on the platform.
Internal emails disclosed in previous installments of the “Twitter Files” showed how company executives dismissed the dashboard after it was cited to swat down the Republican-led House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s memo in 2018 that detailed FBI surveillance abuses against Trump insiders.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats, seized on the idea that the Kremlin’s troll farm was behind a trending hashtag on the platform calling for the release of a classified memo submitted by Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee, that detailed the FBI abuses and the role of the debunked Steele dossier.
In an open letter days after the memo was drafted, the Democratic lawmakers said the hashtag had “gained the immediate attention and assistance of social media accounts linked to Russian influence operations,” and they accused Mr. Nunes of distorting classified information in the memo.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, wrote a separate open letter denouncing the Nunes memo, adding that he found it “reprehensible that Russian agents have so eagerly manipulated innocent Americans.”
The open letters were coupled with hit pieces by media outlets widely dismissing the Republican-led memo as a joke.
One Twitter employee attempted to wave off a member of Mr. Blumenthal’s staff from making the claim because the company didn’t “believe these are bots.”
“It might be worth nudging Blumenthal’s staffer that it could be in his boss’ best interest not to go out there because it could come back to make him look silly,” another Twitter worker wrote in an internal email.
Mr. Blumenthal published his letter despite the warnings.
The latest batch of emails released on Friday shows Twitter executives grew concerned as the theory gained traction.
“Real people need to know they’ve been unilaterally labeled Russian stooges without evidence or recourse,” Mr. Roth wrote.
Other employees proposed going public with the fact that the dashboard was a scam.
“Why can’t we say we’ve investigated… and citing Hamilton 68 is being wrong, irresponsible, and biased?” one anonymous employee wrote in an email to Mr. Roth.
Mr. Roth ultimately recommended that Twitter call out the dashboard publicly.
Others, however, cautioned that doing so would risk upsetting Alliance for Securing Democracy and potentially pose a political risk for Twitter.
“We have to be careful in how much we push back on ASD publicly,” said Twitter’s then-Global Policy Communications Chief Emily Horne, who later became a White House and National Security Council spokesperson in the Biden administration.
ASD’s advisory counsel includes a deep bench of well-connected officials including former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and several former top officials from the CIA, National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security.
“I also have been very frustrated in not calling out Hamilton 68 more publicly, but understand we have to play a longer game here,” wrote Twitter’s then-public policy director Carlos Monje, who later became a senior adviser to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The latest Twitter Files release builds upon previous installments showing how Twitter was coaxed into allowing the U.S. government to strong-arm its content moderation with a barrage of threats from Democrats still angry about purported Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Previously released internal documents revealed that Twitter came under pressure from Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, after Facebook suspended 300 accounts “with suspected Russian origin.”
After reviewing the Facebook data set, Twitter employees were unable to find similar patterns of accounts tied to Russia on their platform.
Twitter informed Mr. Warner that it had suspended 22 suspected Russian accounts and identified 179 others with “possible links” to Russia, prompting the senator to hold a press conference during which he denounced Twitter’s review as “frankly inadequate on every level.”
Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice president of public policy, remarked in an internal email after Mr. Warner’s browbeating that the senator had “political incentive to keep this issue at the top of the news” and to “maintain pressure” on Twitter and other social-media companies to “keep producing material for them.”
Mr. Crowell also wrote that Democrats were “taking cues” from 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who in her “What Happened” book tour blamed Russian propaganda and dirty tricks on social media for helping elect Donald Trump, who she called an illegitimate president.
Twitter formed a “Russia Task Force” to further investigate claims of foreign influence on the platform amid growing pushback from lawmakers and the press.
In an internal memo from Oct. 13, 2017, Twitter employees wrote that they had revealed “no coordinated approach” by Russian actors to influence Twitter users, noting that the majority of accounts with questionable links to Russia seem to be “lone-wolf” activity.
“First round of [Russia] investigation … 15 high-risk accounts, 3 of which have connections with Russia, although 2 are RT,” Twitter employees wrote in a following memo, referring to Russia Today, the Kremlin-controlled English-language news channel.
The task force continued to refine its data model in an attempt to suss out more Russia-linked accounts but to little avail.
By Oct. 23, the task force had finished manually reviewing 2,500 accounts only to find 32 suspicious accounts and 17 connected with Russia, with just two of the Russia-linked accounts, including Russia Today, spending significant amounts of money.