The Alt-Right vs. Robert Mueller

A field guide to the most recent alt-right propagated anti-Mueller stories

As the Department of Justice independent special counsel continues to investigate “any links and/or coordination” between Russia and the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign, members of the alt-right community are actively spreading stories meant to sow doubt about the integrity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the leader of the investigation. Various media outlets, including state-aligned Russian news sites, have picked up these stories. The following is an open source summary of the spread of the most popular anti-Mueller stories on social media and alt-right sites.

This report indicates that the alt-right online community may hold a strong sway over the discourse of U.S. politics, with the potential to impact certain political decisions, including Mueller’s current position as special counsel. This report also indicates a loose alignment between alt-right community members and pro-Kremlin community members in efforts to discredit Mueller.

The uranium story

The first negative story about Mueller that was intentionally spread by a network of alt-right news sites was about Mueller delivering a sample of uranium to Russian investigators in 2009. This story was first publicized by WikiLeaks last May. Despite innuendoes then and now, there is nothing nefarious about the story: Mueller delivered the uranium sample on behalf of the U.S. government for forensic examination in Russia.

An article on the alt-right news site IntelliHub that was published on June 19, however, portrays the meeting as scandalous: “But possible [sic] even more shocking is the fact that the State Department wanted the transfer of the HEU [highly enriched uranium] to take place on an ‘airport tarmac’ which is rather reminisce [sic] of the infamous Loretta Lynch/Bill Clinton meeting which occurred on a Phoenix, Arizona, tarmac back in June of 2016.”

Within two days, the article had been re-posted across 29 alt-right news sites and aggregators, some of which were pro-Kremlin news outlets.

Spread of the “Hillary Clinton requested FBI’s Dir. Mueller deliver highly enriched uranium to the Russians in 2009 in secret ‘plane-side tarmac meeting’” story. (Source: @DFRLab)

As a result, in less than three days after its publication, the article had been shared over 60,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.

(Source via buzzsummo.com)

The leaks story

The second story spread by the alt-right network was first published on Breitbart News, an alt-right news site, and it alleges that Mueller’s team is leaking to the press details about the special counsel’s investigation. The article doesn’t provide any evidence for this claim, aside from a Bloomberg article on the investigation that cites “a person familiar with the probe.”

Despite limited evidence, the story was re-posted by 19 other alt-right news outlets and aggregators in less than two days.

Spread of the “Loose Lips Sink Ships: Mueller probe team starts leaking special counsel investigation details to press” story. (Source: @DFRLab)

As a result, the article was shared more than 31,000 times on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

(Source via buzzsummo.com)

The “criminal past” story

At the same time, another anti-Mueller story surfaced on Angry Patriot, an alt-right news site, alleging that Mueller’s “criminal past” makes him unfit to lead the investigation. The article provides one supposed example of Mueller’s criminal wrong-doing: it alleges that, in 2006, the Justice Department found evidence that Mueller, then the FBI Director, falsified testimony about the Bureau’s surveillance on an anti-war protest in 2002.

The article cites a Mercury News article from 2010 to back up the claim. That article, however, states the following: “FBI [Director] Robert Mueller III … is cited in the report for unintentionally providing inaccurate congressional testimony about one of the investigations [because he was] relying on information from other FBI officials.”

To say that Mueller committed a crime is inaccurate.

Despite the inaccurate facts, the story was re-posted in 12 other alt-right media outlets and news aggregators.

Spread of the “Breaking: Robert Mueller’s criminal past reveals he’s unfit to lead investigation” story. (Source: @DFRLab)

As a result, the article was shared over 5,000 times on social media.

(Source via buzzsummo.com)

The spread of the story, however, did not stop here. Soon after the original article was published, 12 videos with computer-generated voice-overs were published online, along with a robot-voiced audio recording of the Angry Patriot story. These generated between 1,000 and 16,000 views.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXLGOuDjSCkhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsZJtxPLedchttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynEqDSYi2KI

To see the rest of the videos, follow these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65mcsiauQH0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-dYzfVD9_Q

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9Z8CnqNuL8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rKPpakNdaQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWpqxSH3qq8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNuTkRJEIO8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08jJIQA_64U

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lE4hn2wwJ4o

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbY4CJAwJXs

The “conflict of interest” story

On August 1, The Daily Caller published another anti-Mueller story, citing Arizona Congressman Trent Franks, who said that Mueller is in clear violation of the federal law that prohibits the special counsel from having a conflict of interest regarding the subject of his or her investigation. The Congressman and the article suggest that Mueller’s friendship with former FBI director James Comey presents a “clear conflict of interest.”

Snopes, a website that covers stories of questionable veracity, classified the story as “mostly false,” providing commentary from an ethics expert who said that “the relationship [of Mueller and Comey] doesn’t rise to the level of an illegal conflict in relation to the investigation in any case.”

Despite the facts, a network of alt-right news websites and news aggregators jumped on this story, and, in less than two days, it had been published by 18 other news sites and aggregators, including pro-Kremlin media outlets.

Spread of the “House Judiciary Member: Mueller Legally Required to Resign Over ‘Conflict of Interest’” story. (Source: @DFRLab)

As a result, the story was shared more than 5,000 times across social media networks.

(Source via buzzsummo.com)

The “witch hunt” story

Soon after the Daily Caller story, Breitbart News published an article alleging that Mueller’s investigation has expanded far beyond its original parameters, and suggesting that Mueller is “fishing for evidence.” Confusingly, the article does acknowledge that Mueller is still fully within the bounds of his commission.

The article was reproduced verbatim in 16 other alt-right news outlets and aggregators.

Spread of the “Mission Creep: Mueller grand jury fishing for evidence unrelated to Russian interference probe” story. (Source: @DFRLab)

As a result, it was shared over 3,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.

(Source via buzzsummo.com)

#FireMueller on Twitter

Anti-Mueller attacks did not stop with these articles. A small-scale Twitter attack was launched using #FireMueller. This resembled the #FireMcMaster campaign that @DFRLab recently wrote about.

(Source: twitonomy.com)

On August 3, which appears to have marked the beginning of the hashtag campaign, 743 tweets that used the hashtag #FireMueller and that tagged U.S. President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump) were posted. Another 613 additional tweets were posted on August 4. The campaign appears to have dwindled down on August 5, when only 130 tweets using the hashtag were posted.

The most active users used the hashtag between 7 and 22 times in the two-day period of August 3 and 4. Most of them appear to identify as alt-right.

This is a sample of public Twitter accounts. The list is a quantitative measurement of users who engaged on #FireMueller, and does not label the leanings of each account. (Source: twitonomy.com)

The hashtag campaign appears to have coincided with the spread of the story that alleged that Mueller has a conflict of interest stemming from his friendship with Comey.

Spread it on Reddit

The subreddit /r/The_Donald, a forum of Reddit dedicated to discussions of President Trump, was instrumental in the spread of the stories listed above. All of the stories listed above were commented on, shared, and up-voted heavily on the subreddit.

(Source via reddit.com)

Conclusion

In total, anti-Mueller stories spread by the alt-right were shared about 105,000 times, generating millions of impressions. This serves as yet another case study of how a digitally savvy political community with a strong amplification network can spread hyper-partisan stories in an attempt to disqualify or defame an individual — in this case, Special Prosecutor Mueller.

At best, this case study shows how quickly inaccurate stories about public figures can spread unchecked. At worst, it demonstrates yet another example of the alt-right’s attempts to dictate the Trump Administration’s perceptions and actions.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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