Creating a Russian Bogeyman
Lawmakers stirred up anti-Russian sentiment long before the invasion of Ukraine.
One of the most damning facts to emerge from Matt Taibbi’s “Twitter Files” is how aggressive congressional lawmakers and federal agency officials were in pushing a cynical narrative that brought the social media giant to heel while setting up the Russian bogeyman that haunts U.S. foreign policy and posturing in the Ukraine war today.
Among many other acts of narrative and discourse manipulation, the “Twitter Files”—Twitter emails released to Taibbi and other journalists in the wake of Elon Musk’s October takeover of the company—show that beginning in 2017, Facebook and Twitter were under extraordinary pressure to acknowledge and publicize Russian meddling on their social media platforms throughout the 2016 election.
According to the narrative, the meddling—which supposedly came in the form of “bots” and accounts linked to the Russian government—was designed to help elect Donald Trump and polarize the American public. The pressure to expose and eliminate future threats of this nature led over the next three years to the formal insertion of the FBI, DHS, intelligence community, and State Department into Twitter’s daily moderation activities, right up to the eve of Trump’s loss in the 2020 election.
It can be argued that the Russian “malign influence” story helped to get the public’s buy-in for a new Cold War with Russia by normalizing the idea that Russians not only helped to elect Donald Trump, but were actively trying “to destroy U.S. democracy” and are still doing so. “It became conventional wisdom that Russia wants not just to compete with the United States, but to destroy us—to divide our society from within, to cripple our democracy,” said George Beebe, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia analysis and author of The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe (2019).
For decades, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has viewed Putin’s Russia as a threat to European allies and a national security threat to U.S. interests in the region. This hardened significantly after the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the Russian capture of Crimea in 2014. Pairing Russia with Trump, and accusing him of colluding with the Russians in 2016 and against Ukraine—the latter the basis of his 2019 impeachment—along with rampant social media disinformation, exacerbated anti-Russia sentiment in the domestic realm.
“Russiagate transformed Russia from a foreign policy issue into a matter of domestic politics at a time when the United States was becoming increasingly divided,” points out Beebe, who is now director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute (and so is my colleague). As a result, adds Arta Moeini, research director for the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, “demonization of Russia [prior to its invasion of Ukraine] permitted a new Manichean dynamic, an inflated threat that would be used to rationalize increased securitization domestically, and a fresh push for containment of Moscow internationally.”
According to these experts, the Russiagate narrative helped to stifle any efforts to resolve tensions with the Russians on foreign policy issues from 2017 to 2022, even though sober voices had been calling for this all along in order to avoid war, whether it be in Ukraine, or directly with the U.S. The “mania,” as Taibbi called it in one Fox News interview, emboldened calls for NATO expansion and military activity on Russia’s doorstep, rather than restraint, which arguably heightened Moscow’s aggression towards Ukraine.
So how did we get here? According to an exhaustive read of the emails contained in the files, an entire cottage industry has proliferated around exposing these Russian “attacks” on the U.S. since the 2016 presidential election. Early on, this ecosystem not only included the accommodating major media and government agencies, but powerful Democratic politicians such as Rep. Adam Schiff of California, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the “impeachment star” of 2020, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, chairman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security. The latest installments of the Twitter Files (here, here, and here) offer a shocking insight into how these political interests created a furor over Russian disinformation even as internally, company executives claimed to have a hard time finding it, signaling this may be much more complicated than a simple story of Russian efforts to roil U.S. politics.
Taibbi has access only to electronic conversations, not to what executives could have been saying off-line, so our picture remains incomplete. Twitter also had a financial interest in denying the existence of bots. Critics claim, for example, the company was slow to recognize and ban proliferating Saudi bot networks in 2018. But the internal emails expose the intense political pressure, and show that Twitter’s complicity at the beginning was in part self-preservation. In order to avoid vilification in the press and federal crackdowns, Twitter complied in every way with the prevailing narrative.
It began in the fall of 2017. Twitter wasn’t convinced there was a Russian problem, but congressional demands put the company into a defensive crouch. Under pressure, “a cursory review” led to the suspension of “22 possible Russian accounts, and 179 others with ‘possible links’ to those accounts, amid a larger set of roughly 2700 suspects manually examined,” wrote Taibbi. Sen. Warner was not only unimpressed, but “furious.” Warner “held an immediate press conference to denounce Twitter’s report as ‘frankly inadequate on every level.’” After attending a two-hour closed door hearing with Senate intelligence staff, Colin Crowell, Twitter's former vice president of public policy, said Warner had “political incentive to keep this issue at the top of the news” and was bent on getting Twitter to “keep producing more material for them.”
Crowell also wrote, in the same memo, that Twitter was “also being hurt by 3rd party researchers and academics who tap our API to pull together flawed reports about the Russian bot/troll problem as a significant presence on Twitter. … It was evident in the room with staff investigators that these researchers had already briefed the committees and asserted that Twitter is a major problem. These studies are also cited in recent media reports.” As a result, Twitter formed a Russia task force and did more digging. But they claimed they were still unable to produce the kind of evidence that the Democrats wanted in order to prove a massive Russia-driven influence campaign that turned the 2016 election.
“The failure of the ‘Russia task force’ to produce ‘material’ worsened the company’s PR crisis,” Taibbi wrote. “As congress threatened costly legislation, and Twitter was subject to more bad press fueled by the committees, the company changed its tune about the smallness of its Russia problem.”
At one point, according to the emails, Twitter was forced to publicly lean into a BuzzFeed report based on a University of Sheffield investigation of Russian bots that Twitter did not find all together compelling. But they suspended the accounts anyway. “Twitter was soon apologizing for the same accounts they’d initially told the Senate were not a problem,” Taibbi points out. A November 2017 email from an executive encapsulates the formula: “We can expect more investigation of accounts that are tangentially associated to the [Internet Research Agency] handover to U.S. committees, buoyed by academic brand names. Reporters know now that this is the model that works.”
“This cycle – threatened legislation, wedded to scare headlines pushed by congressional/intel sources, followed by Twitter caving to moderation asks – would later be formalized in partnerships with federal law enforcement,” said Taibbi. The next year would be a major test of this new reality. As Russiagate was heating up on a number of fronts, senators demanded Twitter investigate various hashtags for links to Russian bots. According to this Twitter Files thread, packed with internal memos and Democratic senators’ bellicose demands, Twitter was again blasted for not finding evidence to fit the narrative. “Twitter warned politicians and media that they not only lacked evidence, but had evidence the accounts weren’t Russian – and were roundly ignored,” said Taibbi after a January 2018 investigation into the #ReleasetheMemo hashtag, which referred to demands from the right that Congress release a memo by then-House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes that would supposedly prove Russiagate was a cooked-up sham.
That memo was eventually released, and as Taibbi points out, its contents signaling a flawed and biased FISA process in the Russiagate warrants were largely vindicated in 2019, but the mainstream media called it “joke” and continued to blame “Russian bots” for its spread and above all, manipulation, of the American people. “Despite universal internal conviction that there were no Russians in the story,” Taibbi wrote, “Twitter went on to follow a slavish pattern of not challenging Russia claims on the record.” Their cave to demands did not lift the pressure, however, but led to more demands, to the point that one Twitter exec compared the slippery slope behavior from “congressional trolls,” to the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
Soon, there were accusations of Russian bot influence in domestic issues that were polarizing American politics, including the Parkland school shooting in February 2018. In 2019, the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Warner and Republican Chair Richard Burr, issued a 2016 meddling report that in part said Russians had an “overwhelming operational emphasis on race...no single group of Americans was targeted...more than African Americans." All through 2021, Russian bots were accused of spreading COVID and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Twitter eventually institutionalized the government’s meddlesome role in their everyday moderation (as evidenced by scores of internal emails detailing task force meetings and requests from Democratic party officials, the intel community, law enforcement and even the Treasury Department, for accounts and tweets to be taken down). This continued, according to the files, through the 2020 election. In fact, company inboxes were so packed with requests for removing “an astonishing variety” of posts and accounts before that election that it was generating confusion about “which (request) was which.”
Senior attorney Stacia Cardille claimed in a Nov. 3, 2020 email to colleagues: “My inbox is really F--- up at this point.” One FBI office offered to “apologize in advance for adding to your workload.”
Their labors were being compensated. According to an email from Twitter’s Safety, Content & Reinforcement team, the department had already received $3,415,323 from the FBI as of February 2021. The requests, according to the emails, were mostly accusations of Russian-linked accounts and about the Hunter Biden laptop story.
The behind-the-scenes activity of course matched the headlines of the day. Moscow “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,” the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in August 2020. In September, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress there were “very active efforts by the Russians to influence our elections in 2020.”
Biden went on to win that election. His administration continues to warn of Russian efforts to undermine America. As Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned in March 2021: “Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country. … These efforts by U.S. adversaries seek to exacerbate divisions and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.” By the March 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the American people were more than primed to indulge the narrative that the Russians were hell-bent on larger authoritarian ambitions and were playing Americans like fiddles to do it.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Reading these portions of the Twitter Files, one begins to suspect the Russiagate narrative was wildly inflated to serve domestic political purposes, as well as those interests in the American establishment that want an aggressive posture against Russia maintained.
“The constraints this scandal imposed on U.S. policy toward Russia have been immense,” Beebe said. “It prevented Trump from advancing any kind of a détente with Russia. Its lingering effects made it all but impossible for Biden to seek a compromise over Ukrainian membership in NATO—the one thing that might have prevented the war—even if he had wanted to.”
Today, we can only pray that the anti-Russian narrative enabled by the manipulation of social media does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy ending in a direct fighting war with the nuclear power.