The Twitter Files reveal influence of Russiagate disinformation
The suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story shows how the Russian boogeyman is wielded to serve political goals and bury inconvenient facts.
Since 2016, US audiences have been flooded with claims that Russia has waged a "sweeping and systematic" interference campaign to influence them, and that Donald Trump and a bottomless cast of associates were somehow complicit.
No "scandal" in US history has yielded such a lengthy rap sheet of falsehoods, debunkings, and retractions. The Mueller investigation and parallel Congressional inquiries found no evidence for the all-consuming theories of a Trump-Kremlin conspiracy. Allegations of Russian government email hacking and social media operations are equally dubious, most notably on the foundational allegation that Russian intelligence stole Democratic Party emails and gave them to Wikileaks.
Even if we were to ignore the evidentiary gaps and accept each assertion about "Russian interference" at face value, the totality could in no way justify even a shred of the multi-year Russia-mania. With no shame and without end, prominent political and media voices have imbued Russian bots, memes, and hackers — real or imagined — with the power to "sow chaos" in US society, swing election results, and even become worthy of comparison to the attacks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
Given the Iraq WMD-esque preponderance of hyperbole and outright lies in the incessant claims of Russian subterfuge, it is reasonable to conclude that the US intelligence officials and political-media actors who have spread them are waging exactly what they accuse Russia of: a politically motivated disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the general public.
The recently disclosed Twitter Files -- a cache of internal communications from the social media giant -- offer new evidence of one of the Russiagate disinformation campaign’s core functions: protecting the rule of domestic elites, particularly in the Democratic Party.
In two consecutive presidential elections, the Russian boogeyman has been invoked to stigmatize and silence reporting on the Democratic candidate. It began in 2016, when journalists who reported on the stolen DNC emails’ revelations about Hillary Clinton's Wall Street speeches or the DNC's bias against Bernie Sanders were blamed for Trump’s victory and deemed to be unwitting Kremlin dupes promoting "disinformation" – in reality, factual material that embarrassed the pre-ordained winner.
Four years later, that same playbook was deployed for Clinton's successor at the top of Democratic ticket, Joe Biden. In the weeks before the November 2020 election, Twitter and Facebook censored the New York Post’s reporting about the contents Hunter Biden's laptop on the grounds that the computer material could be "Russian disinformation." The Post’s stories detailed how Hunter Biden traded on his family name to secure lucrative business abroad, and raised questions about Joe Biden’s denials of any involvement.
The US media responded to the suppression of the laptop story with indifference or even approval. In one notable case, Glenn Greenwald resigned from the outlet that he co-founded, The Intercept, after its editors attempted to censor his coverage of the laptop controversy. Even stories that had long been public -- such as the unqualified Hunter receiving an $80,000-per-month Burisma board seat just months after his father’s administration helped overthrow Ukraine's government – were effectively off-limits.
There was never a shred of evidence that Russia was behind the laptop story, but that was of no consequence. Dutiful media editors, reporters, and pundits took their cues from a group of more than 50 former intelligence officials, who issued a statement declaring that the Hunter Biden laptop story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
These intelligence veterans’ claim was in fact a classic Russiagate disinformation operation, as the Twitter files newly underscore.
The files, obtained by journalist Matt Taibbi, confirm that Twitter executives suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story based on the suspicion that Russia was behind it, despite their awareness that they had no evidence for that belief.
Asked to explain the rationale, Twitter’s then-Global Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth told colleagues that the “policy basis is hacked materials,” even though, he added, “the facts remain unclear.” Roth justified the fact-free censorship by invoking what he called “the SEVERE risks here and lessons of 2016.” By “lessons of 2016”, Roth was referring to the similarly evidence-free claims that Russia was behind the release of stolen DNC emails. By “SEVERE risks,” one plausible interpretation is that Roth is referring to the risk that dissemination of factual material could again, as in 2016, hurt the Democratic candidate, not to mention the career prospects of those who allow that to happen.
Joining Roth in agreement was Jim Baker, Twitter’s deputy general counsel, who advised that “it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been [hacked] and that caution is warranted.” (emphasis added) Baker’s mere presence at Twitter, and willingness to “assume” a falsehood that could justify censorship, reveals another lesson of 2016: from media outlets to social media giants, US intelligence officials have been granted unprecedented influence over the flow of public information – including stories in which they have blatant conflicts of interest.
Before he joined Twitter, Baker served as the FBI general counsel. In this role, Baker helped oversee the Russia investigation and even circulated the conspiracy theory, manufactured by “researchers” working with the Clinton campaign, that the Trump campaign and Russia were communicating via a secret Alfa Bank server. Baker was tipped to the Alfa Bank story by his longtime friend Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for Clinton’s campaign. Baker thus has a track record of indulging false allegations about Russia in the service of Democratic Party elites, a legacy he continued from his post-FBI perch at Twitter.
(Days after the first batch of Twitter Files were published, Baker was fired amid news that he had vetted the material and possibly impeded its release. Twitter owner Elon Musk claims that he has “concerns about Baker possible role in suppression of information important to the public dialogue.”)
Critics have pointed out that the Twitter Files contain no evidence of direct FBI pressure to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story. But the FBI’s causal role has already been established, to the point where no intervention was necessary. Roth, the Twitter “safety” executive, has previously revealed that he held “regular meetings” with intelligence officials, including the FBI, since 2018. Throughout 2020, Roth recalled, he was warned in “weekly meetings” with “federal law enforcement agencies” to expect “‘hack-and-leak operations’ by state actors” in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election, and that one such “hack-and-leak operation would involve Hunter Biden.” When the laptop story surfaced, Roth had already been primed to censor it.
The story behind Twitter’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story echoes Facebook’s. In an August 2022 interview with podcaster Joe Rogan, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg disclosed that his company suppressed stories about the Biden laptop scandal following a similar FBI warning.
“The FBI basically came to us, some folks on our team, and was like, ‘Hey, just so you know you should be on high alert,’” Zuckerberg told Rogan. “‘We thought there was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election, we have it on notice that basically there’s about to be some kind of dump that’s similar to that so just be vigilant.’”
This was not the first time that the social media giant caved to similar warnings about “Russian propaganda.”
In a long forgotten episode, revealed by the Washington Post in 2017, Facebook was successfully pressured to prop up a Democratic-generated claim that Russia posted deceptive social media posts as part of a “far-reaching disinformation campaign designed to shape the outcome of the U.S. presidential race” in 2016.
When Facebook first came across pages created by “suspected Russian operatives,” in late 2016 and early 2017, it found that its output "had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government,” according to the Post’s account. Moreover, Facebook’s experts “did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts.”
But while “Facebook struggled to find clear evidence of Russian manipulation,” other “influential quarters” helped the company see the light. In the aftermath of their November 2016 humiliation, “aides to Hillary Clinton and Obama” developed “theories” to help them “explain what they saw as an unnatural turn of events” in their loss of the 2016 election. Among these theories: “Russian operatives who were directed by the Kremlin to support Trump may have taken advantage of Facebook and other social media platforms to direct their messages to American voters in key demographic areas.”
These Democratic “theories” came as a surprise to the US intelligence community, which “had little data on Russia’s use of Facebook and other U.S.-based social media platforms” – perhaps because that “use” was so inconsequential and juvenile, as the actual data shows to anyone who has bothered to read it. (Indeed, when the Obama administration, in its last days in office in January 2017, rushed out the pivotal “Intelligence Community Assessment” (ICA) alleging a Russian influence operation in the 2016 election, the document made no mention of any Russian troll farms, Facebook ads, or social media memes. That is presumably because Democratic operatives hadn’t yet invented and disseminated their self-serving “theories” about Russian social media activity).
Despite the fact that they “didn't have hard evidence,” these creative-minded Democratic operatives found a very receptive audience. Mark Warner, the ranking Senate intelligence Democrat, personally flew out to Facebook headquarters in California to press the Democrats’ case. Not long after, in 2017, Facebook went public to parrot the evidence-free “theories” that Democratic operatives had generated.
The recent 2022 midterm election saw a new attempt to revive the Russian boogeyman. Two days before the vote, a New York Times headline declared that “Russia Reactivates Its Trolls and Bots Ahead of Tuesday’s Midterms.” But rather than a multitude of “Trolls and Bots,” the article instead focuses on a single account on the social platform Gab under the name of “Nora Berka.” This account, the Times’s Steven Lee Myers vaguely claims, has been “linked” to a Russian troll farm by “the cybersecurity group Recorded Future,” – yet no evidence is given for how this “link” has been made (or who this group is).
The only evidence provided is that this one alleged troll account has a minuscule reach. “Most” of Nora Berka’s posts “have little engagement,” Myers concedes, with one exception: “a recent post about the F.B.I. received 43 responses and 11 replies, and was reposted 64 times.” Despite these paltry numbers from a single account on a marginal social media platform, Myers concludes that it shows “not only how vulnerable the American political system remains to foreign manipulation but also how purveyors of disinformation have evolved and adapted to efforts by the major social media platforms to remove or play down false or deceptive content.”
Alternatively, the fact that a single social media account can be deemed worthy of an article making such hyperbolic claims shows the vulnerability of legacy media outlets like the Times to Russiagate manipulation – and how easily they have adapted their evidentiary standards to conform.
The Times article appeared at a moment when it was still widely believed that Democrats would suffer a major election defeat, a key factor behind the “Russian interference” panic since it began in 2016. Because no such loss materialized, the Russian “Trolls and Bots” that were supposedly “Reactivated” for the midterms have been promptly deactivated and never heard about since. But Myers offers another likely reason for their appearance: the alleged Russian account’s Gab posts, Myers writes, have “lamented the use of taxpayer dollars to support Ukraine in its war against invading Russian forces,” and “[appear] intended to undermine the Biden administration's extensive military assistance to Ukraine.” Here, Myers is deploying the familiar Russiagate tactic of promoting support for the Ukraine proxy war by painting any criticism of it as the product of Russian manipulation.
Rather than exposing any nefarious Russian influence operations, establishment media outlets and social media giants are only newly underscoring their subservience to Russiagate disinformation. This can perhaps explain their indifference to the revelations of the Twitter Files, and their hostility to Taibbi for reporting it. In an article on the media response to the first round of Twitter disclosures, New York Times media reporter Michael M. Grynbaum explains why the involvement of Taibbi, “a polarizing figure in journalism circles” has “set off its own uproar”: Taibbi has “diverged from the views of many Democrats — for instance, he was skeptical of claims of collusion between Russia and Mr. Trump’s campaign.”
This is refreshingly honest: in “journalism circles”, Taibbi is deemed “polarizing” and even worthy of an “uproar” not because he has made any factual errors in his journalism, but because he has “diverged” from Democratic Party orthodoxy and even become “skeptical” of its bedrock “collusion” conspiracy theory.
If these are the standards guiding establishment journalists today, then it is no wonder that Russiagate propaganda has become so widespread, along with the acceptance – or outright embrace – of censoring information that dares to diverge.
Good stuff. Aaron.
This is what good journalistic analysis looks like.
Great work as always. Best $5/month I ever spent.