Social media giants pressed on foreign bots after memo campaign

Social media giants pressed on foreign bots after memo campaign
© Getty

An internet campaign pushing for the release of a classified memo produced by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee has brought new scrutiny to how foreign groups can use social media to manipulate U.S. politics.

Social media giants Twitter and Facebook were already under pressure from lawmakers over Russian actors’ use of the platforms to meddle in the 2016 presidential race. Now the hashtag campaign centered on the memo, #ReleaseTheMemo, has turned up the heat even further. 

Republicans want the memo in question — a classified report created by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Stefanik shake-up jump-starts early jockeying for committee posts McCarthy unveils House GOP task forces, chairs MORE (R-Calif.) that supposedly offers proof of malfeasance in the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia — declassified and released to the public.  

Much of the #ReleaseTheMemo push has come from GOP politicians and conservative media figures. But an analysis produced by Hamilton 68, a project of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, found that Twitter accounts associated with Russian “troll farms” were also active in promoting the hashtag.


Hamilton 68’s findings prompted Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerWarner: Hack-reporting law 'one of the few areas left where there's broad bipartisan support' Biden signs executive order to improve federal cybersecurity Overnight Defense: Former Pentagon chief to testify about Capitol riot Wednesday | Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a frequent critic of the social media companies, to slam the tech giants for not acting faster on foreign social media manipulation. 

“It shows why we’ve been so frustrated that from these social media companies we get this incremental progress,” Warner told reporters on Thursday. “It’s like pulling teeth out of them. I think as this debate continues to build, I think the question of their responsibility to our country — questions continue to arise.”

Hamilton 68’s data also spurred Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows - Cheney removal, CDC guidance reverberate Schiff: Biden administration needs to 'push harder' to stop violence in Mideast Sunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinInfrastructure deal imperiled by differences on financing If you want Julie Su at the DOL, don't point to her resume Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to ask Facebook and Twitter to provide a public report about ongoing Russian influence on their platforms.

“It is critically important that the Special Counsel’s investigation be allowed to proceed without interference from inside or outside the United States,” the two lawmakers wrote in a letter Tuesday. “That is why we seek your assistance in our efforts to counter Russia’s continuing efforts to manipulate public opinion and undermine American democracy and the rule of law.”

“I’m not a bots expert, but I do know that active measures are still going on against the United States,” Feinstein told the Hill. “It’s deeply concerning.”

Lawmakers don’t believe that post-2016 influence efforts have been isolated to the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign.

Warner said he believed that Russian bots were also promoting a “Trumpian view of a shutdown,” and promoting the idea that the government shutdown was “the Schumer shutdown,” a reference to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.). 

Both companies have been publicly mum on the matter. Facebook said that it had received the letter and was reviewing it. Twitter said in a statement that it “look[s] forward to working closely with Senator Feinstein and Congressman Schiff to address their questions."

In the past, though, Twitter challenged the credibility of outside research on its platform by groups such as Hamilton 68.

“Because third-party researchers do not have access to internal signals that Twitter can access, their bot and spam detection methodologies must be based on public information and often rely on human judgment, rather than on internal signals available to us,” the company said in a Thursday statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The initial evaluation of whether an account is or is not a bot, however, relies on an individual assessment and is, therefore, inherently imprecise.” 

A source with knowledge of the matter said that, as of Wednesday, the company had found that #ReleaseTheMemo efforts were the results of normal, organic posts by real users, instead of coming from a coordinated bot campaign. Meanwhile, social media users calling for the memo to be released pushed back on the idea that they were all bot accounts, posting selfies holding signs that said “#NotABot.”

Twitter’s response has frustrated experts whose work has been challenged by the company.

Kris Shaffer, who has researched Russian influence efforts on Twitter, summed up the company's outlook on external research as “you can only trust Twitter to tell you what's really going on Twitter.” 

Shaffer and other researchers stand by their work, and say that they think Twitter isn’t doing enough to find bots on its own platform.

“If you look online, there’s no shortage of bot detection software. Why do people develop these things? Because they perceive, correctly, that Twitter isn’t doing enough,” said Katherine Haenschen, a Virginia Tech professor who researches social media and politics. “The platforms themselves have not done enough to address these questions. They lost the benefit of the doubt a long time ago.”