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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 Senator 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 Senators Diane Feinstein and 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.