Day 6

How Twitter bots and Russian accounts made #ReleaseTheMemo go viral

The Nunes memo was a dud, but the campaign to release it was not. Information war expert Molly McKew reports on the anonymous Twitter accounts and Russian-backed bots that made it work.
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, as discussion erupted around a classified Republican memo — said to contain information that would expose FBI bias against President Trump — Twitter lit up with calls to make the memo publicly available.

While the memo's release didn't have the damning effect Republicans had hoped for, it did have an effect on voter perception. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week, three in four Republican voters now believe the FBI and the Department of Justice are trying to "deligitimize" the administration.

Molly McKew (Molly McKew)

That reaction is, in part, the result of thousands of tweets encouraging Republicans to #ReleaseTheMemo.

But those tweets weren't written by humans. According to writer Molly McKew, automated systems lead the social media campaign, which was then picked up by politicians, media personalities and the general population.

"There was a fairly sophisticated and aggressive online information campaign, of which Russian bots and information warfare tools were a part," she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.


Message takes hold

McKew, along with New Media Frontier, studied publicly available data as part of an investigation recently published on Politico.

They found that the hashtag was initially linked to a man in Michigan, who tweets under the handle @underthemoraine.

Not long after, Twitter user @KARYN19138585 retweeted and replied to that initial #ReleaseTheMemo tweet: "It's looks like you're the 1st person reporting!" The eight numbers in "Karyn's" username follow a common convention among Russian bots.

The account writer Molly McKew links to the start of the #releasethememo campaign has not been deactivated as of publication. (Politico/Twitter)

From there, the hashtag gained steam.

"Very quickly, we started seeing the amplification of the hashtag through automation networks and then other accounts that were semi-automated," says McKew.

What's more, as the conversation ramped up on Jan. 18, there was a dramatic increase of new Twitter accounts created expressly to tweet #ReleaseTheMemo.

The controversial memo was written by staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. The U.S. Representative is a close ally of President Donald Trump and has become a fierce critic of the FBI and the Justice Department. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)


Easily identifiable

These bots aren't difficult to spot.

"Some of [them] are easily identifiable by ... where the accounts tweet from or the time during which they tweet that makes them look Russian," says McKew.

The content is a tell-tale sign. Bot accounts usually repeat messages and spam other users with only hashtags. They also only tweet during certain periods — like election campaigns.

But this particular social media push wasn't about influencing an election. So, what were the bots trying to accomplish?

"In the simplest terms, it is a kind of lobbying when you're looking at the piece that targets decision makers and lawmakers," says McKew. "It is an information warfare campaign."

That "warfare," says McKew, aims to manipulate perception and the way users think in hope that they will change their actions.

"In this case, that was to get people to buy into the narrative of the 'release the memo' conspiracy, that there was going to be this bombshell document exposing that the entire Trump-Russia investigation as a fraud," says McKew.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with law enforcement officials about the MS-13 street gang and border security, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)


Election meddling?

McKew believes that the hashtag campaign worked.

"By the time the memo came out, it didn't actually matter what was in the memo," she says.

When it eventually surfaced, many expected the contents to be earth shattering. No matter what it said, McKew argues, those influenced by the Russian bots would continue to believe them.

A woman walks past a graffiti covered wall with a giant hashtag sign near Moscow's Kursky railway station on November 17, 2017. (MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

When the U.S. gets closer to its midterm elections in November, social media networks will be closely watched.

"For us it's the longer term narratives that are important. What is the narrative that's being spun on the right? What is the narrative that's being spun on the left?" asks McKew.

The upcoming election will be challenging for most mainstream politicians, says McKew. That's because, in part, voters on the so-called far-right and far-left have a competing, though similar "anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-everything narrative."

"This is the goal of memetic and information warfare: to convince people to think things that aren't really in their best interest," she says.

"And it's having a very divisive effect writ large on our society."

To hear our full interview with Molly McKew, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.