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The Digital Backstory Of The Much-Debated GOP Memo On The FBI


Now we have the digital backstory of that memo because the declassification of it did not happen overnight. For weeks beforehand, a social media campaign demanded it under the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. One analyst says Russian-controlled social media accounts helped to drive that public pressure. Her name is Molly McKew. She's a specialist in information warfare, and she wrote about this for Politico. She's in our studios. Good morning.

MOLLY MCKEW: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. So the White House adviser, Kellyanne Conway, said the other day that Russian social media accounts - which is what you're focusing on - that those accounts, quote, "have nothing to do with releasing the memo." Is that true?

MCKEW: It's sort of a halfway false statement. And I think her point that this is not something Russia wants, that this was a vote of the House Intelligence Committee - it's partially right, but it's wrong. The #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag was driven completely by automated - sort of presence on social media by automated amplification and sort of computational propaganda techniques. A piece of that was Russian. A piece of that was alt and far-right sort of built-in information architecture in Twitter. The two fuse together very effectively to sort of target and effectively lobby lawmakers and decision-makers on this issue.

INSKEEP: I feel we need to explain for the majority of us who actually are not on Twitter. Most people are not on Twitter, surprisingly, for those of us who are. And you're saying there are automated accounts sending messages, constantly retweeting tweets and targeting lawmakers, you said, that you are able to track specific lawmakers or journalists and other opinion-makers who got a lot of demands to release the memo.

MCKEW: Absolutely. There's sort of three factors if you're looking at sort of the basic lanes of computational propaganda. It's sort of automation, targeting and organization. The hashtag was the organization, putting all of these messages behind one hashtag - #ReleaseTheMemo - so that everything was sort of going into one lane. The targeting was of sort of two areas - Republican lawmakers, those who are particularly pro-Trump and those on the Intelligence Committee, and sort of right media amplifiers - Hannity, Laura Ingraham, people like that who could rapidly...

INSKEEP: So if you're one of those lawmakers and you're checking Twitter, you're getting the impression that all of America is demanding the release of the memo.

MCKEW: So in the 11 days between the launch of the hashtag and when they voted the memo out of the committee, the members of the committee were targeted with hundreds of thousands of messages demanding the release of the memo. And what percent of that was organic versus bought or amplified or repeated through these various networks that are kind of built into social media is not clear. But if you are on the receiving end of that, it looks like there is a public pressure campaign behind this, and that's what they were using to justify the vote.

INSKEEP: You said the percent of it that's fake, that's fraudulent, is not clear. But are you able to say - is there evidence enough to say that Russia was in some way directly behind some large percentage of this?

MCKEW: A piece of this is Russian. But I think the key thing is the fusion of the elements, that on - especially on Twitter, you can map out very clearly kind of a network of right automation - sort of far and alt-right. But there's also a far-left group that we call the Bernie Bots. They were not involved in this particular campaign - a little but not much. And then there's a Russian group. The Russian group tends to grab stuff from what the right is doing and start amplifying it and kind of creating that extra churn. But it's, you know, usually 15 percent around presence in these campaigns. But it does create the echo chamber and amplification effect.

In the piece in Politico, we sort of mapped out some of the early accounts that were involved in this campaign. And you can see how regular, you know, everyday-Joe Americans, Russian bots, American Republican Trump supporters who act like bots and other accounts were sort of acting together to amplify this.

INSKEEP: So your bottom line is Russia helped to drive an American political debate?

MCKEW: They did. But it's - the bigger point is computational propaganda is being used to influence how Americans make political decisions. And that's really a problem, and social media needs to help address it.

INSKEEP: Molly McKew, thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.