There was no shortage of online discussion about what the media got right about the Mueller investigation and how it was being spun online
In the hours following the redacted release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated report, news organizations and social-media users alike launched into a day-long analysis of every conceivable angle of the report, including the role that social-media platforms played in disseminating disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Much of what was included in the report ended up verifying investigations by the DFRLab and various news outlets that delved deeply into Russian influence campaign methods. CNBC’s Kate Fazzini summarized the report’s findings regarding Twitter and Facebook’s role in the Russian disinformation campaigns emanating from the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA:
“IRA-controlled Twitter accounts separately had tens of thousands of followers, including multiple U.S. political figures, who retweeted IRA-created content,” the report says. Facebook has estimated that IRA-controlled accounts reached up to 126 million people, with Twitter notifying 1.4 million people they may have been in contact with a Russia-controlled account….
On Twitter, the IRA program broke its operation into two strategies: creating real Twitter accounts meant to represent “individual U.S. personas,” and a separate, IRA-controlled network of automated Twitter bots “that enabled the IRA to amplify existing content on Twitter.”
One of the IRA accounts, which claimed to be that of a Trump supporter from Texas, had 70,000 followers. Another anti-immigration persona had 24,000 followers. A third, called @march_for_trump, organized a series of rallies in support of Trump across the U.S. The accounts posted 175,993 tweets, though the report says only 8.4% of those were election-related.
“U.S. media outlets also quoted tweets from IRA-controlled accounts and attributed them to the reactions of real U.S. persons,” the report says.
Over at The Verge, Casey Newton observed that the Mueller report was essentially an indictment of the social networks.
To the extent that these methods [by Russia] were successful, it was because they played on real social tensions here in the United States. But the Mueller report shows us once again how determined Russians were to amplify those divisions, while flogging Trump’s candidacy relentlessly — and demonizing Clinton’s. (The report also has new details about how Russia hacked the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and and the Clinton campaign, Zack Whittaker reports.)
There are few new grand conclusions to be drawn from the report. Instead there is a reminder that creating open web platforms rooted in America’s free-speech traditions, however a noble cause, has created a massive attack surfaces for authoritarians and dictators. Trending algorithms were easily gamed; inflammatory posts and misinformation got wider distribution than the truth; and the decline of democracy accelerated around the world.
In response to Newton’s post, former Facebook executive Alex Stamos offered his own take in the form of a Twitter thread:
The fact that much of what was included in the report was not a particular surprise was not lost on Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi, who noted the report proved that the real so-called fake news came from Trump, not the news media.
While Mueller’s report didn’t establish a criminal conspiracy and was “unable” to conclude that obstruction of justice occurred — contrary to hours of speculation among cable-news pundits during Mueller’s long investigation — it also largely validated news accounts that Trump dismissed or disparaged….
On the day of Mueller’s appointment, in May 2017, for example, White House aides said Trump reacted calmly to the news. In fact, according to Mueller’s report, Trump’s first reaction was anything but calm. According to notes taken by an aide, Trump responded by saying, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked. . . . This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters repeatedly in May 2017 that she personally had heard from “countless members of the FBI” that they were “grateful and thankful” to Trump for firing FBI director James B. Comey. That never happened, Mueller said. He wrote that Sanders later acknowledged to investigators that her comments were “not founded on anything.
Unsurprisingly, discussion of the report’s release dominated social media. Fortunately, professional and amateur internet sleuths alike kept their eyes peeled for misinformation and disinformation spreading in real-time. Among the best of the bunch were Buzzfeed’s Jane Lytvynenko and Craig Silverman, who put out a public call for examples of questionable claims about the report circulating online. They kept a running tab of what they found, organized by what they concluded to be true, false, or unfounded speculation. In some cases, they managed to nip in the bud certain claims before they went viral:
FALSE: An account pretending to be CNN is already spreading falsehoods about the report.
The account has eight followers and states that it’s a parody. It was created this month and is tweeting fake screenshots about the report.
As proof of the effectiveness of their debunking effort, Lytvynenko and Silverman were lambasted by RT, which weakly attempted to undermine their reporting by deflecting the conversation to BuzzFeed’s involvement in publishing the Steele Dossier.
Meanwhile, RT partner-in-crime Sputnik attempted to amplify the report’s release on Twitter, stating, “#MuellerReport says investigators didn’t find enough evidence to charge any @realDonaldTrump campaign official as unregistered Russian agent.”
At the time of writing, the tweet had only been retweeted five times.
Andy Carvin is a Senior Research Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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