A former FBI special agent-turned disinformation expert says a propaganda tracking tool he helped develop took less than a week to pinpoint evidence of Kremlin efforts to exploit current White House political divisions at the highest levels of national security.
The tracker developed by Clint Watts and a bipartisan group of U.S. information operatives found that Russian-backed social media campaigns played a critical role in amplifying a conservative whisper campaign demanding the dismissal of former Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump's national security adviser. Mr. McMaster was accused of purging hawkish members of the White House staff, including former senior director of intelligence programs Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and Mr. Trump was forced to issue a public statement supporting Mr. McMaster late last week.
The tool -- a web dashboard named "Hamilton 68" after Alexander Hamilton's essay warning in "The Federalist Papers" against foreign influence in American elections -- monitors Russian online influence campaigns in the United States and abroad, with a specific focus on Twitter. It also aims to alert journalists to Kremlin disinformation campaigns as they're underway.
"The dashboard displays the content and themes being promoted by Russian influencers online, including attributed sources such as RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, as well as Twitter accounts that are involved in promoting Russian influence and disinformation goals," the site says.
The dashboard was developed by Mr. Watts; International Center for Counter-Terrorism fellow J.M. Berger; Center for Cyber and Homeland Security fellow Andrew Weisburd; CEO of New Knowledge AI Jonathon Morgan; and the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy director Laura Rosenberger, which provided significant logistical and funding support.
Russian manipulation of social media has long been a focus of the probe looking into the Kremlin's attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign. Last month at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said during a rare public appearance that Russian meddling was a historic trend.
"They have been at this a hell of a long time," Mr. Pompeo said. "And I don't think they have any intention of backing off."
Scholars argue Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys a cultlike status among some Western nationalist and populist groups for his willingness to challenge the dominance of Western liberal ideas.
While early Soviet Union propaganda promoted a "socialist future of the world," these days Russia is seen as merely opportunistic in defense of its national interests. "Russian propaganda tends not to push the political right or the left," said Ms. Rosenberger. "It promotes what is in the Kremlin's best interest -- which is exploiting cultural, racial and economic divisions in society."
Hamilton 68 does not track so-called fake news, but instead monitors the activities of 600 Twitter accounts known to be linked to Russian online influence efforts.
These accounts, Hamilton 68 backers say, are likely controlled by Russian government influence operations, "patriotic" pro-Russians or automated "bots" which can pump the Kremlin's messaging priorities into the social media conversation with robotic precision. The 600 accounts are monitored in real time -- with deeper analytic reports issued regularly.
Last week, amid the McMaster-White House infighting rumors, the dashboard identified that of the 600 Twitter accounts it watches, #FireMcMaster was the top hashtag and was tweeted more than 50,000 times.
Ms. Rosenberg called the episode a clear example of Russian attempts to amplify American political divisions. Both the left-leaning New York Times and right-leaning Weekly Standard noticed and reported on the finding.
When asked how long she thought it would take for Hamilton 68 to be targeted by the Kremlin, Ms. Rosenberg laughed. "We don't expect the Russians to take kindly to this," she said. State-owned Sputnik News, she noted, "has already done five stories trashing this effort."
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