Can we trust the judgement of think-tanks who have labeled Twitter users as part of a ‘Russian influence campaign’ as sound when those same entities provide little evidence, and their high-level members include former Clinton supporters?

At the beginning of 2017, an initiative was launched by a non-partisan think-tank called the German Marshall Fund US (GMFUS) under the name “The Alliance For Securing Democracy” (ASD).

During the Summer, ASD started working on a project they called the “Hamilton 68 Dashboard“, an effort that was presented to the public as a means of monitoring Russian disinformation efforts on Twitter, apparently boosted by research covering a three year period.

Over recent months, the press has reported on what the dashboard identifies as Twitter activity from those ASD have classified as Russian or, at least, involved in Russian influence operations.

Although some in the mainstream press have divulged the association between ASD and GMFUS, hardly anyone has disclosed the affiliations between those running ASD and special interests, or similar connections with the advisory board of GMFUS.

Methodology & Lack of Disinformation Classification

Obviously, with a contentious project such as the “Hamilton 68 Dasboard”, some people will immediately question the results and the first thing the doubters are likely to latch onto will be the methodology (or lack thereof). Reassuringly, ASD do provide details of the methodology and it does, on the surface, seem fair and reasonable.

However, while analytical methods for identifying associations and social media relationships are outlined, if you read it through to the end you may notice one thing missing. The methodology for actually classifying tweets as disinformation or part of a Russian influence campaign isn’t disclosed and neither are samples of what had been declared disinformation.

This is, of course, fundamental in assessing the veracity of the effort.

How can we be sure that those ASD deems to be “Russian Influence” aren’t just individuals who have expressed opinions or stated factual information that is politically inconvenient for ASD’s staff and advisory council (and others connected to GMFUS)?

The answer is that we can’t know for sure and are expected to trust their judgment. Unfortunately for them, events over the past week suggest that this is trust they don’t deserve.

Branding #ReleaseTheMemo As “Russian Influence” Backfires

On January 18, 2018, the US House Intelligence Committee held a vote and agreed to allow house members to view a classified memo relating to alleged abuse of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) laws.

Later that day, Republican Rep. Steve King stated via Twitter that he had read the memo and that it was “worse than watergate”, using the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo in his tweet.

This was followed by Republican Congressman Mark Meadows posting a video of a statement issued on the house floor which he then shared on Twitter using the same hashtag:

WikiLeaks even tweeted about it:

It didn’t take long before #ReleaseTheMemo was trending.

Glenn Greenwald, Sean Hannity and others also tweeted about the topic using the same hashtag on the following day. The total number of Tweets on that day grew to over 184,000 tweets.

Google’s data from search queries shows the peak in interest was consistent with what was being seen on Twitter.

However, there was a problem. The sleuths at ASD monitored unprecedented levels of “Russian Influence” in relation to the hashtag and were cited within 24-48 hours by entities such as the Associated Press in articles including this one published at Snopes.

The information provided by ASD was then used by Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff in a co-signed letter sent to both Twitter and Facebook, as ABC reported:

Of course, with ASD not disclosing it’s targets or even what they classify as disinformation, they could be tracking Americans that share factual information but are branded as “Russian Influence” because they’ve cited/retweeted/etc something sourced to RT, Sputnik, etc. at some point in the past or because they’ve posted factual but politically inconvenient information that ASD choose to classify as disinformation regardless.

So, was there really an unprecedented surge of Russian influence?

Well, no, it doesn’t seem so. Twitter is currently attributing the activity to Americans.

Amusingly, the day before ABC News had even reported on Feinstein and Schiff’s efforts, Julian Assange posted a tweet illustrating why ASD’s claims of tracking Russian influence are doubtful:

Since then, “Hamilton 68” has faced increasing criticism with people pointing out that those working for and advising ASD may be the reason for it’s questionable results.

Details of the staff, advisors, etc are below.

The Alliance For Securing Democracy Staff

 

Laura Rosenberger

GMFUS senior fellow & Director of Alliance For Securing Democracy
Former Foreign Policy Advisor – Hillary For America
Previously served in State Dept and
National Security Council.
Term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Foreign Policy contributor.

 

Jamie Fly

GMFUS senior fellow and Future of Geopolitics and Asia programs director
Foreign and National Security Affairs counselor to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) 2013–17
Executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) 2009-2013
National Security Council (2008–09) and
Office of the Secretary of Defense (2005–08)

 

David Salvo

Resident fellow at Alliance for Securing Democracy
Previously worked as Foreign Service Officer at the State Department

worked on U.S. policies toward NATO and the OSCE

 

Bret Schafer

ASD’s coordinator for communication, social media, and digital content
Former editor-in-chief of Public Diplomacy Magazine

 

Brittany Beaulieu

Alliance for Securing Democracy program officer
Served on Europe, Eurasia & Central Asia team on Sen. Foreign Relations Committee
Worked on Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014

 

Clint Watts

Non-resident fellow – Alliance for Securing Democracy
Former FBI (JTTF), Consulted for: CTD NSB
Senior fellow Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, George Washington University
Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow
Stated that Trump used active Russian measures against his opponents during the election.

 

J.M. Berger

Fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism
co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror (with Jessica Stern) and author of Jihad Joe
develops analytical techniques to study political and extremist uses of social media.
Regular contributor to Foreign Policy and founder of Intelwire.com

 

The Alliance For Securing Democracy Advisors

 

Michael Chertoff

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009
Chertoff Group co-founder (risk-management and security consulting)
Senior of counsel at the Washington, DC law firm Covington & Burling
Chairman of BAE Systems 2012-2015.
Co-Author of the PATRIOT Act.
Endorsed Hillary Clinton.

 

Michael McFaul

special asst to president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House from 2009 to 2012, then U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012–14. Senior fellow at Freeman Spogli Institute for Int. Studies. Peter and Helen Bing senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. NBC analyst, WAPO columnist.

 

Bill Kristol

Weekly standard editor, Facebook fake-news arbiter
Served on the board of the Project for the New American Century (1997–2005) and the Foreign Policy Initiative (2009–17)
Chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle (GWB administration)
Endorsed Hillary Clinton

 

Michael Morrell

Former acting CIA director 2011, 2012-13 and as deputy director & director for Intelligence.
Beacon Global Strategies as a senior counselor since November 2013
Played a central role in the United States’ fight against terrorism and was one of the leaders involved in the location & capture of Osama Bin Laden
Wrote an op-ed in the NYT endorsing Hillary Clinton
Proposed giving weapons to Ukraine in response to alleged hacking of US election.

 

David Kramer

Former senior director Human Rights & Democracy, McCain Institute for International Leadership
Freedom House – former president. Served 8 years in U.S. Department of State under GWB. Advisory council for GWB Presidential Center’s Human Freedom Project.
On board of directors at Halifax International Security Forum. Worked at CSIS in 90s.
Was reportedly directed to meet with Steele in London by McCain
Was a senior fellow at the Project for a New American Century
International Advisory Council at the Center for European Policy Analysis
In addition, Kramer is a member of the Ukraine Today media organization’s International Supervisory Council.
In 2016 Kramer argued that the Minsk II peace agreement should be scrapped and western sanctions on Russia maintained.
Has spoken out against Obama and Clinton in the past.

 

Toomas Ilves

Elected president of the Republic of Estonia in 2006 and in 2011
Worked on ICT for the UN
Former Vice president of European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee
Former Foreign affairs minister & ambassador of the Republic of Estonia to US and Canada
Is world economic forum co-chair. fellow at the Hoover Institution

 

James Stavridis

US Navy (ret.) commander of European Command and as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe from 2009 to 2013.
Chairman of US Naval Institute Board of Directors.
U.S. Southern Command in Miami 2006–09 and Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, in Arabian Gulf for Op. Iraqi Freedom and Op Enduring Freedom from 2002–04.
Former NATO Commander

 

Mike Rogers

Former Congressman, officer in the Army, and FBI special agent. Former chair of U.S. House Intelligence Committee as leader on cybersecurity and national security policy, oversaw the intelligence agencies’ $70 billion budget. CNN national security commentator, hosts and produces CNN’s “Declassified.” Chief Security Adviser to AT&T, on board of IronNet Cybersecurity and MITRE Corporation, advises Next Century Corp. and Trident Capital. Distinguished Fellow and Trustee at Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Senior Fellow at Belfer Center, Harvard.
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee on Energy & Commerce.
Introduced CISPA.

 

Nicole Wong

Former U.S. chief tech officer for Obama. Previously Google’s vice president and deputy general counsel, and Twitter’s legal director for products. Chairs board of Friends of Global Voices. On boards of WITNESS, the Mozilla Foundation,  advisor to the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley,  Harvard Business School Digital Initiative, the DNC Cybersecurity advisory board, Refactor Capital, and  Albright Stonebridge Group.
Associate at Perkins Coie LLP in 1997 and was named a partner in 2000. Wong represented media clients including the Los Angeles Times, The Walt Disney Company, Microsoft, and Amazon.com before joining Google.

 

Kori Schake

Former White House National Security Council, Department of Defense for the Office of the Secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff, State Department for the Policy Planning Staff. In 2008, Kori was senior policy advisor on the McCain–Palin campaign. Research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Co-authored “Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military” with Jim Mattis. Teaches at Stanford, contributing editor covering national security and international affairs at The Atlantic, columnist for Foreign Policy magazine, contributor to War on the Rocks.
Contributed to conceptualizing and budgeting for continued transformation of defense practices, the most significant realignment of U.S. military forces and bases around the world since 1950, creating NATO’s Allied Command Transformation and the NATO Response Force, and recruiting and retaining coalition partners for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq

 

Julianne Smith

Deputy national security advisor to Joe Biden (2012 to 2013), acting national security advisor to Biden in 2013, principal director for European and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon.
Senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Contributor to Foreign Policy.

 

Jake Sullivan

Obama admin national security advisor to Joe Biden, director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was the senior policy advisor on Secretary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. He is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Martin R. Flug visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School. – Was spoken of as a front-runner for the position of U.S. National Security Advisor under a Hillary Clinton administration prior to her electoral defeat.

There are quite a few Democratic party figures, people that worked in the state department, people that endorsed Clinton, Foreign Policy publication contributors, people that have worked on the National Security Committee and those with ties to the US intelligence community and NATO.

I can’t speak for others, but personally, when it comes to considering all the affiliations, associations, influences and endorsements – I struggle to see how such a collective can be expected to carry out the role of an impartial arbiter on the topic of disinformation.

While they remain opaque on what they’ve classify as “Russian influence” and “disinformation”, there’s little reason to assume the results of their efforts will inherently be credible.

Twitter contradicting their assertions obviously does their credibility no favors either.

For more information about ASD’s advisors/staff, check out Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept article on the topic.