Hundreds of newly created Twitter accounts pushed #ReleaseTheMemo

The viral hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo appears to have been driven at least in part by a swarm of Twitter account...

Posted: Jan 25, 2018 9:01 AM
Updated: Jan 25, 2018 9:01 AM

The viral hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo appears to have been driven at least in part by a swarm of Twitter accounts set up in the past week, a CNN analysis has found.

More than 1,000 accounts that were set up between Thursday -- when the hashtag first appeared -- and Sunday night have tweeted the hashtag. 460 of those were what are known as "egg accounts," accounts that don't even have a profile picture. About 200 of the accounts had sent only four or fewer tweets by Sunday night, with at least one of those featuring the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag.

The memo in question is a document spearheaded by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. It details what it alleges are FBI surveillance abuses during the 2016 election. While some Republicans and Trump supporters in the House and outside of it want the memo to be made public, Democrats say it's misleading, and an effort to torpedo special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign.

Related: Senate Intelligence Committee not given access to Nunes FISA memo

Software developed by the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy showed that #ReleaseTheMemo was one of the talking points being pushed most frequently on Thursday and throughout the weekend by a group of Twitter accounts it believes to be part of "Russian-linked influence networks" on the platform.

The group does not disclose which accounts it tracks and CNN has not independently verified its findings.

On Tuesday, two top congressional Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, wrote to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter calling on the companies to conduct an "in-depth forensic examination of this real-time activity on your platforms."

The letter was prompted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy's findings, although those findings were about Twitter, not Facebook.

Twitter told CNN on Tuesday that it was looking forward to working with Feinstein and Schiff and addressing their questions. Facebook said that it had received the letter and was reviewing it.

It's not clear that any such analysis will show that Russians had anything to do with the hashtag's popularity, or even that bots did. The Daily Beast reported Tuesday that Twitter's internal analysis has "found that authentic American accounts, and not Russian imposters or automated bots, are driving #ReleaseTheMemo." And a number of people with influence both on Twitter and in the media have promoted the campaign and the hashtag. Nor does CNN's analysis suggest that the hashtag was manufactured, even though some of the support for it appears to have been.

What the discovery of the newly created accounts does show, though, is the challenges facing Twitter and other social media companies as they try to manage the effects that their platforms and the manipulation of them can have on democracies. Many of the accounts identified do not clearly break Twitter's terms of service, but anonymous accounts tweeting the same thing en masse can help make causes appear to have more support than they do.

CNN's analysis found that between Thursday and Sunday night, newly created accounts (which are not necessarily related to Russia or to any other state actor) tweeted or retweeted the hashtag more than 5,000 times -- a tiny fraction of the total number of tweets which included the hashtag, but also only a small fraction of the anonymous and automated accounts pushing the hashtag.

In the eight hours after the first tweet using the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag was sent, CNN's analysis found, some 130 accounts that would eventually use the hashtag were created. As of Sunday night, those accounts had together sent more than 800 tweets which included the hashtag.

CNN worked with New Knowledge, a company that tracks the spread of information online, on the analysis. New Knowledge also works with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Included in the tweets CNN analyzed were accounts that showed signs of bot-like, automated behavior, explained Jonathan Morgan, the founder of New Knowledge, who previously advised the White House and State Department during the Obama administration about combating terrorist propaganda online. Morgan said that this could indicate that much of the broader conversation was influenced by automated accounts.

Much of the hashtag's virality was due to legitimate, organic activity. Republican lawmakers, prominent conservative media figures and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., all helped the hashtag trend with their own tweets. One tweet from Rep. Mark Meadows, who said he had read the memo and described it as "shocking," was retweeted almost 50,000 times. Media coverage also likely played a role as well.

But any influence from a large number of newly created accounts, or larger bot campaigns, can be cause for concern given the experience of the 2016 election.

"Accounts that coordinate their activity to amplify content greatly increase the number of people that see that content by keeping it visible for longer. If topics are like beach balls, rising and falling, bots bat the ball back into the air repeatedly, keeping it afloat higher and for longer. The longer the time period the hashtag is out in Twitter users' feeds, the greater the chance users will see it and retweet it to their followers," Becky Ruppel, a data scientist at New Knowledge, told CNN.

On its website, Twitter says that the number of tweets is only one of the factors considered in determining the ranking of trending topics on its platform.

Twitter told CNN on Monday that the company takes steps to limit the impact of "lower-quality content, like duplicate Tweets or content that appears to be automated" on its "Trending Topics" section.

When CNN asked Twitter about the hundreds of new accounts pushing #ReleaseTheMemo, Twitter said it was aware of the issue and would take action against any accounts that violate their terms of service.

Many of the accounts CNN found, even those seemingly created solely to promote the hashtag, do not appear to be in breach of Twitter's terms of service, though Twitter would likely consider them "lower-quality content" and discount them to some extent in determining "Trending Topics."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 296745

Reported Deaths: 6783
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19731230
Hinds18881393
Harrison16780282
Rankin12787265
Jackson12643229
Lee9703161
Madison9484203
Jones8005147
Forrest7250138
Lauderdale6847227
Lowndes6033140
Lamar590980
Lafayette5747113
Washington5229130
Bolivar4620124
Oktibbeha442194
Panola432396
Pearl River4193132
Warren4138115
Pontotoc410771
Marshall404492
Monroe3993128
Union396474
Neshoba3822170
Lincoln3564104
Hancock350277
Leflore3389119
Sunflower319286
Tate303374
Pike301796
Scott295271
Alcorn292463
Yazoo290865
Itawamba290275
Coahoma282069
Tippah279565
Copiah279259
Simpson276680
Prentiss271158
Wayne254541
Leake253172
Marion252778
Covington249780
Grenada248578
Adams235078
George232445
Newton231252
Winston221979
Jasper213845
Tishomingo212965
Attala206870
Chickasaw201453
Holmes182770
Clay179251
Stone173029
Tallahatchie171439
Clarke169672
Calhoun158528
Smith153033
Yalobusha145536
Greene127933
Walthall124540
Noxubee123131
Montgomery122939
Perry122235
Lawrence120621
Carroll119025
Amite112235
Webster111132
Jefferson Davis102731
Tunica99523
Claiborne99129
Benton93924
Humphreys93027
Kemper90423
Quitman77414
Franklin76219
Choctaw69817
Jefferson62827
Wilkinson62427
Sharkey49117
Issaquena1676
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 498076

Reported Deaths: 10094
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson716711387
Mobile36294737
Madison32616468
Tuscaloosa24340421
Montgomery22739519
Shelby22174218
Baldwin19873289
Lee15039157
Calhoun13832293
Morgan13753254
Etowah13390325
Marshall11448211
Houston10124264
Elmore9483190
Limestone9420138
St. Clair9022227
Cullman8984182
Lauderdale8612214
DeKalb8489175
Talladega7606165
Walker6585259
Jackson6545104
Autauga632492
Blount6236127
Colbert6001121
Coffee5264103
Dale4671107
Russell406933
Franklin399878
Covington3993106
Chilton3898103
Escambia379173
Tallapoosa3622143
Clarke344053
Chambers3431111
Dallas3422142
Pike293373
Marion288695
Lawrence284985
Winston258368
Bibb246160
Geneva240370
Marengo238857
Pickens225457
Barbour213651
Hale212269
Fayette202057
Butler201466
Henry183541
Cherokee178039
Monroe166739
Randolph164840
Washington156836
Macon147745
Crenshaw146255
Clay145954
Cleburne139841
Lamar133733
Lowndes132751
Wilcox122925
Bullock117336
Conecuh107024
Perry106127
Sumter99732
Coosa90224
Greene88532
Choctaw55323
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Cloudy
51° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 42°
Feels Like: 51°
Columbus
Partly Cloudy
56° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 42°
Feels Like: 56°
Oxford
Cloudy
48° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 42°
Feels Like: 44°
Starkville
Mostly Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 41°
Feels Like: 54°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather