In the latest issue of the Twitter Files, independent journalist Matt Taibbi revealed a scam on the social media platform that implicated most major corporate media news outlets in promoting false claims of Russian disinformation.

It included the 2017 Alabama U.S. Senate race, which had then-Democrat candidate Doug Jones pull off an upset against Republican nominee Roy Moore.

Hamilton 68 was a digital "dashboard" that claimed to track "Russian disinformation" and its influence in the United States by analyzing the behavior of over 600 accounts it identified as Russian bots or pushing "Russian influence activities."

According to Taibbi, major news outlets in the United States used Hamilton 68 — created by former FBI agent Clint Watts — as a source for hundreds of stories related to Russian disinformation. However, Taibbi reported the dashboard itself was based on fraudulent data, and the alleged Russian bots were mostly ordinary users unaware their account had been a part of the list.

"Virtually every major news organization in America is implicated, including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and the Washington Post. Mother Jones alone did at least 14 stories pegged to the group's research,'" Taibbi said. "Even fact-checking sites like Politifact and Snopes cited Hamilton 68 as a source… The accounts Hamilton 68 claimed were linked to 'Russian influence activities online' were not only overwhelmingly English-language (86%), but mostly 'legitimate people,' largely in the U.S., Canada and Britain."

The fact that the accounts listed as Russian bots were neither "strongly Russian nor strongly bots" was no accident, Taibbi said, but an intentional "scam" against "conservative circles."

"Instead of tracking how 'Russia' influenced American attitudes, Hamilton 68 simply collected a handful of mostly real, mostly American accounts and described their organic conversations as Russian scheming," he outlined." As [former Twitter executive Yoel] Roth put it, 'Virtually any conclusion drawn from [the dashboard] will take conversations in conservative circles on Twitter and accuse them of being Russian.'"

Alabamians may be familiar with false claims of Russian bot interference after Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of the research firm New Knowledge, used similar tactics during the 2017 U.S. Senate race. According to Taibbi, Morgan was a "key figure associated with Hamilton 68."

"Jonathon Morgan … was outed for faking a Russian influence operation in the Alabama Senate Race," Taibbi said. "He used Hamilton-like tactics to create online chatter about Republican Roy Moore having Russian bot support, got caught, and suffered the indignity of having what he called a 'small experiment' described as a 'false flag' operation in the New York Times."

However, even after Morgan's plans were exposed and Twitter itself questioned revealing Hamilton 68's fake list of Russian bots, the news stories of Russian disinformation, citing the dashboard as a main source, kept coming through 2018.

"These stories are still having a huge impact on American culture and politics and played significant roles in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, placing downward pressure on the Sanders, Trump and Gabbard campaigns while boosting the likes of Joe Biden (frequently depicted as a 'target' of Russian bots)," Taibbi said. "In the wake of any online controversy, be it the Colin Kaepernick saga or gun control debates after mass shootings, reporters raced to claim 'Russian bots' were trying to 'sow division,' often using Hamilton or an outfit like it to bolster their claims."

"Before, we could only speculate. Now we know: the 'Russian threat' was, in this case at least, just a bunch of ordinary Americans, dressed up to look like a Red Menace," Taibbi concluded.

Hamilton 68 was taken offline in 2018. However, a similar dashboard, Hamilton 2.0, was launched in September 2019.

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