On Monday, Newsweek and Raw Story reported that a network of Japanese-appearing Twitter bots helped force the resignation of former Sen. Al Franken. Both reports relied heavily on a February 9 blog post from Mike Farb, who runs a website called Unhack the Vote, which is dedicated to tracking foreign influence on U.S. politics.
Franken announced his resignation on December 7 amid calls from Democratic colleagues to step down. By that point, eight women had accused the Senator of groping or forcible kissing. Most famously, radio host Leeann Tweeden published a photo of Franken appearing to touch her chest as she slept during a USO tour in 2006.
The story is simple, one we’ve heard many times since October: Franken, accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, decided to resign in response to growing public pressure from the #MeToo movement.
But, as Snopes noted, Newsweek and Raw Story suggested that something more sinister happened. Both outlets’ framing tapped into growing paranoia over foreign political meddling to insinuate that bots duped politicians and the public into forcing Franken out of office. Ex-Bush staffer Richard Painter, who strongly supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, cited the Newsweek piece to push this narrative and received more than 6,000 retweets:
Putin’s MeToo moment?
This is one of the reasons I demanded an investigation not a resignation. The senate got played and Minnesota lost a fine statesman.
This tweet is misleading, and it falls into a trap of blaming—with scant evidence—every momentous political moment on foreign meddling or social media bot campaigns.
Raw Story has since replaced its piece with an editor’s note, so I will focus on Newsweek’s version. Newsweek’s story makes the case that an "effective propaganda” campaign helped drive Franken out of office, one that “effectively silence[d]” staffers who signed a letter defending the senator. The piece, reported by Nina Burleigh, was titled, “How an Alt-Right Bot Network Took Down Al Franken."
Burleigh wrote that several prominent right-wing figureheads started targeting Franken in mid-November. As Burleigh notes, Republican operative Roger Stone tweeted on November 15 that the senator would be “next in a long list of Democrats accused of ‘grabby behavior.’” One day later, Tweeden published her account of being groped by Franken, the first public accusation against the Minnesota senator. Burleigh further reports that on the same day of Stone’s tweet, a Japanese web developer registered a domain. The same developer registered another domain five days later.
Burleigh reported that, on December 7, those sites linked to an article by Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo titled, “Dear Al Franken, I’ll Miss You But You Can’t Matter Anymore.” At the same time, an army of Japanese-appearing Twitter accounts began tweeting Oluo’s headline with a link back to the one of the sites.
December 7 is significant because it is the same day Franken announced his resignation, and the day after dozens of Congressional Democrats called for him to step down. It is also where the errors begin. Burleigh originally reported that the Oluo-parroting tweets started “just before” Democrats called for Franken’s ouster. She later corrected her story.
And as Oluo noted on Twitter, the anti-Franken tweets citing her work came after the senator announced his plans to step down, not before. On that day, the Associated Press tweeted at 10:58 a.m that Franken planned to resign. Oluo told me over the phone that her piece went live at 12:47 p.m. (There are no timestamps on The Establishment, the site where here piece was published.) With this timeline in mind, the idea that bots weaponizing Oluo’s work had any effect on Franken’s decision is preposterous.
Burleigh also cited an organization called the Alliance for Securing Democracy to claim that Franken trending was the result of a Russian Intelligence operation. Snopes spoke to a researcher from the organization, who said that Burleigh mischaracterized their research since their analysis also looked at pro-Franken tweets. Burleigh removed the line.
Oluo told me and Snopes that she believes that the Twitter accounts were spambots linking to a clickbait farm, rather than a political site. But additional evidence gathered by Burleigh, though not included in her story, suggests that the websites had a political purpose.
Reached over e-mail, Burleigh provided screenshots showing that Twitter bots also tweeted headlines for other stories about Franken that linked back to one of the two sites, including a report from the Daily Caller about House Democrats asking for his resignation. The bots also tweeted headlines in support of failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Neither of these examples, some of which I independently confirmed using Twitter searches, made it into Burleigh’s story, and Oluo had no way of knowing about these other links. Burleigh said she might update her piece.
So, there is some evidence that a Twitter bot network pushed stories about Franken in the run-up to his resignation announcement, and that the bots in question are somehow connected to whoever is behind these two sites. We still don’t know what connection the bot campaign had to right-wing pundits who were pushing anti-Franken tweets around the same time, if they had any connection at all.
What's missing from the story—and from the story of Russian influence over the 2016 presidential election, it must be said—is how much of a role these bots played in driving Franken out of office. Were they really “effective propaganda,” as Burleigh wrote? Did they really “silence” the eight Franken staffers who rushed to his defense? Or were they messages lost in the ocean of social media noise?
After I asked her about some of Oluo’s comments, Burleigh told me that I was missing the point. "There are tectonic plates of political and social change crashing the old order and we don’t know what is coming,” she said. "The discourse is degraded. Lies are the coin of the realm.”
Few dispute that we are living in a precarious political moment thanks to streams of misinformation, but overhyping the influence of Twitter bots doesn’t serve anyone but the misinformers. There is little evidence to suggest that bots took down Franken. There is ample evidence to prove that his colleagues and accusers did. Oluo told me this was her biggest frustration over Burleigh’s piece: "The most egregious thing about this is because I’ve been trying to get people to focus on the humanity of these victims coming forward. This blatant effort to make it seem like it was all a big scheme—when real women put their lives on the line—is really disgusting to me.”
The journalist Adrian Chen, who in 2015 reported on the Russian troll farm at the center of Mueller’s recent indictments, yesterday appeared on MSNBC to pour cold water over Russia panic. "It’s essentially a social media marketing campaign with 90 people, a couple million dollars behind it, run by people who have a bare grasp of the English language and not understanding who they’re targeting or what they’re targeting.”
He added, "I think the paranoia aspect, the idea that there is this all-powerful or immense propaganda machine that is going on, that anybody that is tweeting something you don’t like or is causing trouble on the internet could be chalked up to Russia—that is a very powerful thing and is really increasing now in the wake of these indictments in a worrying way."
Journalists, of all people, should not be pushing the “paranoia aspect."