NBC's Jo Ling Kent explains how #ReleaseTheMemo was part of a Russian social media effort "to manipulate the conversation in American politics"
Kent: "#ReleaseTheMemo picked up so much momentum that it began capturing the attention of major media organizations, in part because of bots or automated accounts"
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From the February 12 edition of MSNBC Live:
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JO LING KENT (NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT): New research is showing us that Russian bot Twitter accounts are attempting to manipulate the conversation in American politics. This hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo seemed to organically go viral on Twitter amid a major debate earlier this month. But in reality, researchers now telling us they're finding that that trending hashtag was pushed, in part, by Russian-backed accounts designed to stoke anger and breed conspiracy theories.
JONATHAN MORGAN (CEO, NEW KNOWLEDGE): I think what we're dealing with is information warfare.
KENT: As the Republican campaign to release the GOP memo heated up, the hashtag suddenly started trending, appearing hundreds of times on Twitter, often from manufactured accounts.
MORGAN: What we saw with #ReleaseTheMemo was it basically went from zero to 100 in a really condensed period of time. So over 24 hours we saw it promoted heavily by accounts that we've seen historically associated with Russian disinformation campaigns.
KENT: Jonathan Morgan is the CEO of New Knowledge, a company of national security and digital media experts who monitor the internet looking for things like suspicious hashtags to help online communities defend themselves from outside manipulation. His team saw that #ReleaseTheMemo picked up so much momentum that it began capturing the attention of major media organizations, in part because of bots or automated accounts.
MORGAN: I'd go so far as to say that the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag was more important than the memo itself in creating this air of suspicion around the [special counsel Robert] Mueller investigation, and I think that's ultimately the goal of this type of attack, is to create the idea that something might be wrong to give people the impression that where there's smoke there's probably fire.
KENT: Now, with the memo old news, researchers say Russian-backed accounts are on the prowl searching for the next hashtag to manipulate, and there are two main targets. First, President Trump and the White House. The hope, through social media: influence the conversation and guide Trump toward a Russia-backed agenda.
MORGAN: Ultimately, the president is trying to speak to his base. And if he believes that his base is interested in this ridiculous memo controversy, then he's going to amplify that conversation. But I think it does mean that they're being manipulated by this sort of manufactured conversation that happens on social media.
KENT: The second target, the 2018 midterm elections and the candidates already on the campaign trail.
MORGAN: I'm frankly very concerned about the conversation going into 2018 and the midterms. If we can't believe in the authenticity of these conversations that we're having with our friends, or with strangers, or with people who we think that we share some sort of common belief system or common ideology, then I don't know how our democracy functions.
KENT: Some researchers say Twitter and other social media companies should be ultimately be responsible to stop this from happening and control what goes on on their platforms. Twitter did not comment, but said in a letter to Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, "We performed a preliminary analysis of available geographic data for tweets with the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. Our initial inquiry based on available data has not identified any significant activity connected to Russia with respect to tweets posting original content to this hashtag." Earlier this year, Twitter says it also notified 1.4 million people who engaged with or followed a Russia-linked account in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.