On Monday, Newsweek published a story titled, "How An Alt-Right Bot Network Took Down Al Franken." Relying heavily on a blog called Unhack the Vote, Newsweek reporter Nina Burleigh made a case that a mysterious right-wing entity mobilized a network of bots to spread tweets encouraging Franken's ouster.
Newsweek retracted that story today, stating that it was "unable to independently verify" claims that a political bot campaign "amplified pressure on Franken to resign after allegations of sexual misconduct."
The Newsweek piece focused on Japanese-appearing accounts tweeting the title of a piece by Seattle writer Ijeoma Oluo: "Dear Al Franken: I'll Miss You, But You Can't Matter Anymore." The tweets linked to a website that includes a mix of political and non-political links, as well as advertisements.
Oluo drew attention to the piece on Twitter, criticizing Burleigh for not asking her for comment before publication. After being contacted by a reporter from Snopes, Oluo tweeted that her Franken piece was actually published after the former Minnesota senator announced that he would resign. Newsweek also reported, incorrectly, that bots tweeting Oluo's headline did so before congressional Democrats called for Franken's resignation. In fact, it was after.
When contacted by The Stranger on Tuesday, reporter Burleigh said she had more material that suggested a political motivation behind the bot network and the website the bots linked to. She emailed screenshots of Twitter bots posting another Franken headline from the Daily Caller and the headline of an article in support of failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. The Stranger verified the authenticity of some of the tweets, but the additional tweets never made it into Burleigh's piece. Burleigh did not respond when asked if she gathered the screenshots before or after her piece was published.
Here is Newsweek's note:
Newsweek has retracted its story about a conservative botnet effort to force the resignation of Senator Al Franken.
The initial report was based on research conducted by Unhack The Vote, a group examining outside influence in U.S. elections and politics. It alleged that a "decidedly alt-right" botnet "weaponized" anti-Franken stories and amplified pressure on Franken to resign after allegations of sexual misconduct. Newsweek was unable to independently verify their claims after a further review of their work.
Newsweek regrets the error.