Ugh. Apologies all, but I have way too much on my plate to do much blogging. It stinks, because I have some corrections I’d like to file.
This is all to say that, if I’m writing now, I must have something terribly interesting to share.
A few hours ago, Kurt Eichenwald posted this article. It’s a bit confusing, so let me summarize. Sputnik International is a fairly recent broadcasting arm of the Russian government, and it’s gotten a reputation for being a fountain of pro-Putin propaganda.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed a decree dissolving state-run news agency RIA Novosti and state-owned Voice of Russia radio, and appointed ultraconservative television anchor Dmitry Kiselyov to head a newly-formed media conglomerate.
The decree, effective immediately, transfers all RIA Novosti property to a new conglomerate called “Rossiya Segodonya,” which means “Russia Today.” Russia Segodonya will provide “coverage of Russian state policy and public life in the federation,” the decree said.
The Kremlin on Monday launched a brand new global propaganda effort called Sputnik as it seeks to build on the success of its English-language propaganda channel Russia Today. Sputnik will comprise a website and radio, and will broadcast in 30 languages from “multimedia hubs” based everywhere from London to Rio de Janeiro to New Delhi and Washington, the Moscow Times reported.
The new global effort comes nearly a year after the Kremlin suddenly “liquidated” RIA-Novosti, its international news conglomerate and formed Rossiya Segodnya, under which Sputnik now falls. Rossiya Segodnya is headed by Dmitry Kiselyov.
On October 10th, 2016, at 22:23:12 GMT, Sputnik published a story about the recently leaked emails from the DNC. The key part of the story is this paragraph:
“Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate,” said Blumenthal putting to rest the Democratic Party talking point that the investigation into Clinton’s management of the State Department at the time of the attack was nothing more than a partisan witch hunt.
Minor problem: Blumenthal didn’t say the quoted part, that was actually Kurt Eichenwald in a 2015 article. Whoops! It was a silly little mistake, and sometime after Sputnik posted this and I’m writing these words the entire article gets pulled down. Why? Who knows. Is the rest of the article factually accurate? Who cares. Just remember that little mistake.
Meanwhile, at about 6PM EST of the same day Donald Trump holds a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. You can see the entire thing online, and the video feed helpfully includes timestamps. For instance, at 7:41 PM EST Trump walks onstage. At 7:55:12, he starts reciting what Blumenthal wrote, and at 7:55:35 he quotes the above and credits it to Blumenthal.
Not seeing the problem? 22:23:12 GMT translates to 6:23:12 EDT, or about ten minutes after Trump’s rally began. That’s one hour and twenty minutes before Trump walked onstage. How the heck did the same mistake happen at both a Russian propaganda site and a Trump rally, almost simultaneously?
Coincidence, perhaps? Jon Passantino points to a tweet apparently dated to 11:28 AM EDT, which quotes that passage and credits Blumenthal. I say “apparently” because the tweet is deleted, so we can’t completely verify it. One crucial bit of info is the image URL listed there. [HJH 2016-10-22] It used to work, though as I type this it has disappeared. Here’s a mirror.
There’s a header above the quote, which ends with “The truth…”. That’s the title of Blumenthal’s email, a detail omitted from the original tweet. Maybe Trump’s team looked at the original?
Uh, that thing up top is a header, and right below it is a reference to an image from Reuters. If you had a mere glance at the original, it would have been obvious Blumenthal was quoting a news story. I can find other sites quoting the same email (such as one dating to 3:19 EDT), but they make it clear Blumenthal is quoting an article and not saying those words. That’s all I can find on the subject.
This puts us in an awkward situation. If Trump’s team was mislead by the Tweet, how did they know which email to look for? If Trump’s team found this on their own, how did they mis-attribute the quote? Almost all the pieces fit if Trump’s team found this on the Russian site, though, as it mentions the title of the email. The only exception is the timeline, as it either demands Trump’s team was monitoring a Russian site for news and quickly inserted it into a speech with barely an hour’s lead time…
… or they got the news from the same source as the Russian site, hours in advance. It’s not implausible that Trump would have connections to Russian intelligence, via his connections with Putin. But this hypothesis means we have to accept that Russian intelligence was fiddling with the US elections, and Trump was happy to help out. That, too, is plausible.
Sooo… how about them Russians, eh?
[HJH 2016-10-11] Even if Trump’s team did get their information off that tweet, that doesn’t take Russian interference off the table.
One of the first English tweets promoting the Incirlik story came from a Twitter user under the name Marcel Sardo—an account previously identified for instigating pro-Russian campaigns. From this initial tweet, a cascade of Twitter accounts rebroadcast RT and Sputnik Incirlik articles adding commentary and hashtags. Accounts initially broadcasting the #Incirlik story from seemingly different locales and online communities quickly merged in the first 90 minutes after release of the RT and Sputnik news story. An increasingly common social media pattern over the past two years as Russia has become more aggressive both on the ground and online as tensions ratchet in a renewed Cold War with the West.
The evolving pattern of retweets reveal a close-knit network and circular information flow where key amplifiers re-broadcast the base #Incirlik story adding commentary and fomenting fears. And here’s the odd part: many members of this network seem to be Trump fans.
We’ve known since December 2015 that some twitter accounts used to push Russian propaganda have also been tweeting about Donald Trump. Given Trump’s love of the platform, it’s almost certain he’s seen or even shared some of those tweets. It’s also suspicious that both the tweet and the Russian article were taken down at roughly the same time; Jon Passantino claims that tweet was quite popular, so even if whoever was behind it cared about factual accuracy (they don’t) there’d be strong incentive to keep it up.
It’s a lot of circumstantial evidence (here’s a counter-theory: Trump’s team correctly sourced things, but on the podium Trump went “nah too complicated” and decided to misattribute), but it’s uncomfortably compelling.
[HJH 2016-10-12] I’ve still been poking away at this in my spare time, and I’ve got some new info. I figure the best way to present this in timeline form. All times are on October 10th, 2016 in Eastern Daylight Time unless otherwise noted.
11:28 AM: A Twitter user by the name of @republic2016 (current name: “CNN is Axis Sally”), posted a tweet that contained the quote, the incorrect attribution, but not the email title.
3:19 PM: A website called “The Truth Division” puts up a post which has the quote and title, but correctly states Blumenthal was quoting an article.
6:00 PM: Trump’s rally is scheduled to start. It’s about 10 minutes late, but the entire thing is online and periodically pops up with timestamps.
6:23:15 PM: Sputnik posts their article which contains the quote, title, and incorrect attribution.
7:41 PM: Donald Trump walks onstage at his rally, and plops his lecture notes onto the podium.
7:45:37 PM: Eichenwald publishes the first version of his article. He berates Sputnik for getting the attribution wrong, and notes their article has already been taken down.
7:55:35 PM: Trump reads the quote onstage and credits it to Blumenthal. Stills from the video shows the title of the email (“The truth…”) is written on his page.
10:04:02 PM: Eichenwald updates the article with info on Trump’s rally. This version assumes Sputnik is the sole source, and berates Trump’s team for blindly copying Russian propaganda.
10:24 PM: Jon Passantino (@passantino) points to @republic2016’s tweet as a possible alternate source.
10:48 PM: In response to Adam Parkhomenko, Steve Farrell (@politisteve) points to the @republic2016 tweet as a source, suggesting it hasn’t been deleted yet.
11:04 PM: Passantino notices the tweet has been deleted.
October 11th, 5:08:17 AM: An update from Eichenwald notes he’s gone looking for alternatives for where Trump could have got the information from, and come up empty: “a reference appeared in a Turkish publication, but it was nothing but a link to the Sputnik article.”
For his part, Eichenwald is still updating his article. Some key passages from the latest copy, as of this writing:
Because of its important role in the Russian effort, Sputnik does not simply publish whatever it chooses, the government official tells Newsweek. Articles pertaining to politics in the United States and Europe require high-level review. It is not clear if Russian authorities conduct that review, the official says, but no article directly related to American politics would just be sloppily thrown into public view without careful consideration. (The article in question disappeared from the website shortly after Newsweek attempted to contact Sputnik about it.) […]
After Newsweek first published its article on Sputnik and the Blumenthal email, some reporters suggested that a tweet from an anonymous account may have been the source of the Russian article or Trump’s statement. An image attached to the tweet showed the sentences in question, but provided no indication that it came from an email. Based on the information from the government official with knowledge of the intelligence inquiries, Sputnik would never base a story it portrayed as the “October surprise” in the American election on a tweet with which it had no connection. The account in question is also quite unusual: It has put out an average of 285 tweets a day about American politics since it was created in February. (The account deleted the Blumenthal tweet on Monday.) The image from the tweet could have been anonymous propaganda by someone who searched through thousands of words to find sentences to attribute to Blumenthal. More troubling, it could have been distributed over social media as a step in the Russian effort to quote an altered email in Sputnik; that would match the tactics described by the government official who spoke to Newsweek. Either way, Trump spread the same story that the Russian government was pushing, whether by quoting propaganda whose origin he did not know or by using information that originated from Sputnik.
The key consideration is where Trump’s campaign got their information from, and when. As pointed out above, none of the public sources is a perfect match for what Trump read, they either are missing info (the tweet), contain inconvenient and contradictory facts (Truth Division and Wikileaks), or went public after Trump’s rally started (Sputnik). There are ways to explain the differences: Trump’s team used the tweet, researched the Wikileaks email but ignored/missed the attribution; Trump’s team was monitoring Sputnik during the rally, and inserted the news into Trump’s speech before he walked out.
Someone who has a decent chance of becoming president of the United States is blindly repeating Russian propaganda aimed at destabilizing the USA. Most people think this is indirect, via Trump’s consumption of Twitter and love of conspiracy theories, but a surprisingly strong case can be made that Trump is getting information straight from Russia. If no-one on Trump’s team looked at the original email on Wikileaks or lacked a spine, and if no-one was monitoring Sputnik, then Trump must have been fed Russian propaganda via private channels.
THAT is frightening.
[HJH 2016-10-22] Shortly after writing that, I discovered @republic2016’s tweet was saved in Google’s cache. That has long since expired, but I have a screen capture. Let’s say Trump got this story from that tweet. If that’s the case, though, it should have been pretty obvious the attribution was incorrect.
@Jewish_Gentile (Antoine Fisher), 2:41 PM:
@republic2016 Found it: https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/2038 …
@Luminous_Animal (Julie Willing), 3:28PM:
@republic2016 Blumenthal didn’t say it. Your excerpt comes from a Newsweek article that Blumenthal passed along.
@republic2016 @magnifier661 Thi is from a Nesweek story quoted in email http://www.newsweek.com/benghazi-biopsy-comprehensive-guide-one-americas-worst-political-outrages-385853 … Common, guys. BS like that works on Hillary.
Numerous Twitter users jumped up to correct the attribution, and as the screenshot shows all you needed to do was scroll down a page to see them. If Trump’s staff got their info from this tweet, they either were woefully incompetent or didn’t care. They knew the information was false, but spread it anyway.
Notice too that the original author of the tweet had no interest in correcting the record. They too didn’t care they were spreading falsehoods, and even re-shared the tweet they would later delete when reporters started sniffing around.
It turns out, there’s a good explanation for @republic2016’s behavior.
There was some important information about that document I could not explicitly state in my article, because I needed to protect a government source. That source has now given me permission to say more. What I have not revealed until now is that American intelligence determined that the false document—10,000 words that had been snipped down to two sentences and then sent out as an image on Twitter—was originally altered by a Russian operative and fed onto the internet through Reddit. From there, it was picked up and tweeted as part of a coordinated Russian campaign. Eventually, it was picked up some people who believed the tweeted image was real, leading it to be spread further. It then appeared in Sputnik, the site identified by the U.S. government as a participant in Russian disinformation campaigns. The original, undoctored Blumenthal email was released last week by Wikileaks, which played no role in it being altered. Wikileaks is as much of a victim in this deception as anyone else.
I can’t find the above Reddit post or comment, alas. At 4:03:49 PM, Reddit user LibertyIsNotFree posts the email subject line, a link to the email, and the full quote mis-attributed to Sidney Blumenthal… only to have the proper attribution fed back to them within 15 minutes. This seems to be a common occurrence, too, all of it coming after the tweet. Either the Reddit thing was deleted, or Eichenwald’s source screwed up in some way.