Non-profit

Alliance for Securing Democracy

Website:

securingdemocracy.gmfus.org

Type:

Foreign Policy Advocacy Group

Project of:

German Marshall Fund of the United States

Founded:

2017

Executive Director:

Laura Thornton

Contact InfluenceWatch with suggested edits or tips for additional profiles.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) develops policy recommendations through research projects, including those on election integrity and analyzing various Russian state-backed communications. The Alliance for Securing Democracy is led by Laura Thornton and consists of an advisory council of more than a dozen individuals including John Podesta, former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

In early 2023, Hamilton 68, a digital dashboard the group promoted in 2017 as an effort to “help ordinary people, journalists, and other analysts identify Russian messaging themes and detect active disinformation” was exposed by left-leaning journalist Matt Taibbi as a “scam.” As part of his work on the Twitter Files, Taibbi provided internal emails from the social media firm during 2017 and early 2018 in which Twitter analysts found that Hamilton 68 did not primarily track Russian influence, but instead “generally right-leaning users” 1 2

“I’m increasingly of the opinion that this dashboard is actively damaging and promotes polarization and distrust through its shoddy methodology,” said one Twitter executive of Hamilton 68. “Real people need to know they’ve been unilaterally labeled Russian stooges without evidence or recourse. It’s a major problem.” 3

About

The Alliance for Securing Democracy is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the German Marshall Fund is a think tank founded in 1972 that is committed to strengthening international ties between the United States and Europe. 4 Created in 2017, 5 the Alliance for Securing Democracy develops strategies and programs to deter autocratic efforts to undermine democratic values across the globe. 6

Projects

Alliance for Securing Democracy creates a variety of “long and short form research products” to educate supporters about alleged authoritarian threats around the world. 7 Projects have focused on various elections, such as the 2021 German election and 2022 French election projects that aimed at identifying “information manipulation” 8 during the elections. 9 Other projects include research on election security, malign finance, and various regional issues surrounding China, Iran, and Russia. 10

ASD created the “Hamilton Dashboard,” a public tool used to track state-backed messaging from China, Iran, and Russia across various public platforms including YouTube and Twitter, as well as state-sponsored websites, to study the spread of government messaging. ASD also conducted simulation exercises ahead of the U.S. 2020 elections to combat potential foreign efforts to disturb the elections. 11

Finances

Alliance for Securing Democracy is independently funded by private individuals and small family foundations. A 2018 policy blueprint report published by ASD listed several of its principal donors which included the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, a charitable network created by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.12 Other major left-leaning supporters include The Klarman Family Foundation, the Sandler Foundation, and the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust. 13

Leadership

Alliance for Securing Democracy is led by director Laura Thornton, a senior fellow who has prior experience at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a think tank where she managed various teams across Europe. She also previously worked at the National Democratic Institute. She earned her BA from Northwestern University, and she attended Princeton University and Oxford University for her graduate studies. 14

ASD’s advisory council consists of over a dozen individuals who either previously served as members of Congress, worked in think tanks, or worked in various intelligence agencies. Advisory council members include Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration; Michael Morell, former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama; John Podesta, former chair of Hillary for America and an official in the Clinton and Obama White Houses; and Kori Schake, the director of foreign policy at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute. 15

Hamilton 68

In August 2017 Alliance for Securing Democracy launched Hamilton 68, a digital dashboard the group promoted as an effort to “help ordinary people, journalists, and other analysts identify Russian messaging themes and detect active disinformation or attack campaigns as soon as they begin.” Explaining its methodology ASD claimed, “our analysis has linked 600 Twitter accounts to Russian influence online.” 16 17

“Some of these accounts are directly controlled by Russia, others are users who on their own initiative reliably repeat and amplify Russian themes,” said an ASD description of the Twitter users it was tracking. 18

“It was a scam,” wrote independent left-leaning journalist Matt Taibbi in January 2023. “Instead of tracking how “Russia” influenced American attitudes, Hamilton 68 simply collected a handful of mostly real, mostly American accounts, and described their organic conversations as Russian scheming.” 19

His conclusion was based on his review of emails that took place between Twitter employees, beginning in October 2017, shortly after the launch of Hamilton 68. Taibbi was given access to the internal deliberations as part of the Twitter Files, a voluntary release of documents to journalists following the social media firm’s purchase by billionaire Elon Musk in late 2022. 20

Twitter’s Internal Analysis

“Twitter executives were in a unique position to recreate Hamilton’s list, reverse-engineering it from the site’s requests for Twitter data,” wrote Taibbi. “Concerned about the deluge of Hamilton-based news stories, they did so – and what they found shocked them.” 21

Taibbi displayed images of the emails from Yoel Roth, at the time Twitter’s trust and security chief, beginning with one dated October 3, 2017, shortly after Hamilton 68 was launched. 22

“At long last I’ve been able to reverse-engineer the list of accounts behind the Hamilton 68 dashboard,” wrote Roth to his coworkers. “The Securing Democracy people have never been willing to release the list to anyone.” 23

“The selection of accounts is … bizarre, and seemingly quite arbitrary,” Roth continued. “They appear to strongly preference pro-Trump accounts (which they use to assert that Russia is expressing a preference for Trump… even though there’s not good evidence that any of the accounts they selected are or are not actually Russian).” 24

“I think we need to just call this out on the bullshit it is,” concluded Roth. 25

Continuing to examine Hamilton 68 in January 2018, Roth told his coworkers there was “no evidence to support the statement that the dashboard is a finger on the pulse of Russian information ops.” 26

In February 2018, Roth wrote that “these accounts are neither strongly Russian, nor strongly bots; they’re just generally right-leaning users.” 27

“Hamilton 68 barely had any Russians,” summarized Taibbi. “In fact, apart from a few RT [Russia Today] accounts, it’s mostly full of ordinary Americans, Canadians, and British.” 28

“I’m increasingly of the opinion that this dashboard is actively damaging and promotes polarization and distrust through its shoddy methodology,” said Roth, in a January 2018 email. “Real people need to know they’ve been unilaterally labeled Russian stooges without evidence or recourse. It’s a major problem.”

The late 2017 and early 2018 concerns of the Twitter staff regarding the veracity of the Hamilton 68 tracking list were not publicly revealed until the Twitter Files report posted in late January 2023. Taibbi wrote that Twitter decided against informing the users that they had been listed on the ASD database due to “concerns about taking on the politically connected Alliance for Securing Democracy.” 29

Hamilton 68 Examples

For his Twitter Files report, Taibbi interviewed some of the people on the Hamilton 68 tracking list. He revealed that some were journalists, conventional political activists, and entertainment figures. 30

The list included well-known right-leaning author and political commentator David Horowitz, whose Twitter account had more than 82,000 followers as of January 2023; right-leaning media figure and activist Dennis Michael Lynch, an account with more than 36,000 followers in early 2023; and left-leaning journalist Joe Lauria, editor-in-chief of Consortium News, an account with more than 12,000 followers in early 2023. 31 32

Dave Shestokas, a lawyer and sometime political candidate, had an account with more than 92,000 followers in January 2023. “I’ve written a book about the U.S. Constitution. How I made a list like this is incredible to me,” said Shestokas, after told by Taibbi that he was on the Hamilton 68 tracking list. 33

“Old Holborn,” a popular satire account, had 78,000 Twitter followers in January 2023. Among them was Nick Pickles, Twitter’s chief of policy when the Hamilton 68 data was first examined by the social media firm’s staff. 34

The Twitter Files reveal Pickles’ incredulous reaction to finding Old Holborn on the propaganda tracking list. 35

“A pretty odd list,” wrote Pickles, in an October 2017 email to Yoel Roth and other Twitter employees. “One of them is a UK guy who is well known as basically a wind-up merchant (oldholborn) and I follow him and wouldn’t say he’s pro-Russian – I can’t even remember him tweeting about Russia.” 36

Pickles was also skeptical of the smaller accounts on the Hamilton 68 list: “The idea that accounts with 5/8/12 followers are somehow propaganda gurus seems odd too.” 37

A non-famous Twitter user on the list had lived through the civil war in Lebanon. “I’m shocked,” she replied, when contacted by Taibbi. “Supposedly in a free world, we are being watched at many levels, by what we say online.” 38

“I’m listed as a foreign bot?” said another person interviewed by Taibbi. “As a proud taxpaying citizen, charitable family man, and honest son of a US Marine w/a Purple Heart, I’m hurt. I deserve better. We all do!” 39

Media Citations

Taibbi estimated the content from Hamilton 68 had become the source for “hundreds if not thousands of mainstream print and TV news stories” during the Trump presidency. 40

“If one goes by volume alone, this oft-cited neoliberal think-tank that spawned hundreds of fraudulent headlines and TV news segments may go down as the single greatest case of media fabulism in American history,” wrote Taibbi. “Virtually every major news organization in America is implicated, including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and the Washington Post. Mother Jones alone did at least 14 stories pegged to the group’s “research.” Even fact-checking sites like Politifact and Snopes cited Hamilton 68 as a source.” 41

In one example shown in the Twitter Files report, a September 2018 Observer headline read: “Russian Propagandists Seize Kavanaugh Controversy to Sow Division Online.” 42

“Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, Kavanaugh’s name was a trending topic among 600 Twitter accounts disseminating pro-Kremlin narratives, according to the Hamilton 68 dashboard,” claimed the report. 43

As another example, Taibbi showed a September 2017 report from the myth-busting website Snopes.com. Citing Hamilton 68 data, Snopes claimed online criticism of the Committee to Investigate Russia was being promoted by Russian “social media bots, paid trolls, and ‘useful idiots.’” 44 45

The Committee to Investigate Russia (CIR) was a left-leaning advocacy non-profit founded in 2017 by actor, film producer, and longtime left-wing activist Rob Reiner. It promoted the conspiracy theory that former president Donald Trump or his associates collaborated with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election. CIR’s reports included promotion of media stories linked to the debunked “Steele dossier.” CIR disbanded in March 2019, shortly after release of the special counsel investigation, colloquially known as the “Mueller Report,” which did not find evidence to support the conspiracy theory. 46 47 48

An April 2018 Washington Post story cited Hamilton 68 data to report that “Russian-linked Twitter accounts” were artificially inflating online support for Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham and promotion of the hashtag #IStandWithLaura. Ingraham was then at the center of a controversy for criticizing anti-firearms activist David Hogg and receiving organic Twitter support from right-of-center individuals. 49

#ReleaseTheMemo

Also see: Trump-Russia Collusion Claims

On January 18, 2018, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), then under control of Republicans, voted to allow the entire House of Representatives to review the so-called “Nunes Memo.” Written at the behest of then-U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), then the chair of the HPSCI, the classified memo was titled “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Abuses at the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” It purported to provide evidence that the FBI had engaged in abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in its investigation of Carter Page during the 2016 presidential election. A former advisor to Donald Trump during the campaign, Page was never formally accused or charged with any wrongdoing. 50

Five days after the memo was circulated to HPSCI members, it was denounced by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), an HPSCI committee member, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) as “a misleading talking points ’memo’ authored by Republican staff that selectively references and distorts highly classified information.” 51

Among the major allegations, the Nunes memo stated the FBI had relied upon the so-called Steele dossier to obtain permission to conduct secret surveillance of Page. Though initially promoted as legitimate by Schiff and others, the dossier was ultimately debunked as a collection of unsubstantiated claims created by a contractor being paid by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. 52 53 54

Almost two years later, in December 2019, numerous Nunes memo allegations were subsequently verified by a report from the Department of Justice Inspector General (IG), which found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” with the information the Bureau submitted to obtain the FISA warrants. The IG debunked the claims made in the Steele dossier and reported “many basic and fundamental errors” and “extensive compliance failures” committed by the FBI during its investigation of Page. 55

Though initially a classified (secret) document when circulated to the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives on January 18, 2018, rumors of the Nunes memo’s general assertions about the Page investigation leaked to the public within hours, and a “#ReleaseTheMemo” hashtag campaign began trending on Twitter. 56

On January 23, Congressional Democrats issued open letters to Twitter in which they alleged Russian government propaganda, rather than organic public support from American citizens, was driving the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign. 57

“Several Twitter hashtags, including #ReleaseTheMemo, calling for release of these talking points attacking the Mueller investigation were born in the hours after the Committee vote,” wrote Schiff and Feinstein. “According to the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, this effort gained the immediate attention and assistance of social media accounts linked to Russian influence operations. By Friday, January 19, 2018, the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag was ’the top trending hashtag among Twitter accounts believed to be operated by Kremlin-linked groups.’” 58

“If these reports are accurate,” they warned, “we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process.” 59

Later that day, in their separate open letter, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) alleged that the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag was “creating a false impression of grassroots support for partisan efforts to disrupt the Russia investigation and shut down the federal government.” 60

“We find it reprehensible that Russian agents have so eagerly manipulated innocent Americans,” wrote Whitehouse and Blumenthal. 61

Most corporate media reports conformed to the same narrative. Showing several examples from the Washington Post and other sources, Taibbi wrote that the “national media in January and early February of 2018 denounced the Nunes report in oddly identical language, calling it a “joke.”” 62

During the last two weeks of January 2018 the Washington Post ran at least six news stories where the Hamilton 68 data and #ReleaseTheMemo were both mentioned. 63

The Twitter Files show the social media firm’s staff found no evidence of Russian influence over the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag and had attempted to warn Blumenthal staffers and other Democrats away from Hamilton 68 rumors. 64

Matt Taibbi reported that Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, “couldn’t find any Russian connection to #ReleaseTheMemo – at all.” 65

A Twitter memo reported by Taibbi summarized the firm’s investigation of #ReleaseTheMemo. It concluded that “engagement was overwhelmingly organic and driven by strong VIT [very important tweeter] engagement.” Among the supportive VIT’s identified by the Twitter investigation were those of Wikileaks, Donald Trump Jr., and then-U.S. Rep Steve King (R-IA). 66

The Twitter Files communications also show that on January 23, before the Blumenthal and Whitehouse open letter was released, a Blumenthal staffer contacted Twitter for information. 67

“I tried to warn him off this particular storyline because we don’t believe these are bots,” wrote Carlos Monje, then Twitter’s director of policy, in an internal update to other staffers. 68

Another Twitter employee advised that because there was “little reason to believe it’s a big Russian propaganda movement” that they should warn the Blumenthal staffer that “it could come back to make him look silly.” 69

“Blumenthal isn’t always looking for real and nuanced solutions,” Monje warned his Twitter colleagues. “He wants to get credit for pushing us further. And he may move on only when the press moves on.” 70

And as a result, Taibbi concluded that “reporters from the AP to Politico to NBC to Rolling Stone continued to hammer the “Russian bots” theme, despite a total lack of evidence.” 71

References

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  2. “Hamilton 68: A New Tool to Track Russian Disinformation on Twitter.” Alliance for Securing Democracy. August 2, 2017. Accessed January 27, 2023. https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/hamilton-68-a-new-tool-to-track-russian-disinformation-on-twitter/
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