The US and French presidential elections were both highly spirited and targeted by the Russian intelligence active measures teams with the goals to influence, disrupt and sow distrust. To listen to the ongoing discussion in media and government, one would think that post-election, the Russian intelligence apparatus had picked up its kitbag and headed back to its lair to noodle how best to revisit the pitch just prior to the next election.
The reality is, they’ve not left the pitch and are still engaged, every day, influencing and planting seeds of distrust. The German Marshall Fund of the United States has provided a grant to facilitate the creation of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan, transatlantic initiative. In early August, the alliance launched Hamilton 68, an online dashboard that measures …
… the content and themes being promoted by Russian influencers online, including attributed sources such as RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, as well as Twitter accounts that are involved in promoting Russian influence and disinformation goals.
The Hamilton 68 dashboard tracks Russian propaganda within Twitter looking at the content and behavior of more than 600 accounts being used to push the Russian message. Some are bots, while others are state-funded news outlets, or semi-automated accounts that “tweet based on pre-determined rules supplemented by a human user”. The monitored accounts fall into three categories:
- Attributed accounts that clearly state they are pro-Russian or affiliated with the Russian government.
- Accounts (including both bots and humans) that are run by troll factories in Russia and elsewhere.
- Accounts run by people around the world who amplify pro-Russian themes either knowingly or unknowingly, after being influenced by the efforts described above.
The dashboard is named after Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper no. 68, which is both clever and apropos: the Federalist 68 focused on the “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils”. Hamilton demonstrated a good deal of prescience as to what was in store for the fledgling democracy in 1788 when he wrote these words. No one could have imagined the successful influence and disruption these past 18 months at the hands of the Russian intelligence apparatus.
The dashboard provides a near real-time look at Russian online efforts. Readers will find displayed a variety of widget boxes:
- Top Themes – a narrative that highlights the one or two top themes being propagated throughout the Russian network.
- Top Tweets – the top Tweets from within the network as measured during the preceding 24 hours.
- Bots and Trolls metrics – metrics presented in bar graph format are provided for, top hashtags, trending hashtags, trending topics, top topics, top domains, trending domains, top URLs, trending URLs, distribution of tweets by hour of day, daily tweet counts and distribution of tweets by day of the week.
Hamilton 68 has unsurprisingly caught the attention of the Kremlin. Indeed, recently departed Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, attributed the creation of the tool to Washington and not a pro-democracy non-profit.
The creators go to great length to emphasize that not every tweet, retweet, or item that finds its way into the network is created by a Russian author, or is germane to the US democratic process. Interspersed with these items seemingly innocuous pieces one will find the propaganda, that which some have come to call fake news. The alliance concludes its introduction to Hamilton 68 with:
We are not telling you what to think, but we believe you should know when someone is trying to manipulate you. What you do with that information is up to you.
While Hamilton 68 dashboard is focused on the United States, we should note the October 2016 EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties, which warned all EU members about active measures to undermine democracy. The alliance acknowledges that a dashboard could be made for a number of topics beyond the US – France, Germany, Syria conflict, and Russia’s conflict with Ukraine to name a few.
Check out the dashboard, provide the creators your feedback and suggestions.