White nationalist provocateurs, a pair of fake news sites, an army of Twitter bots and other cyber tricks helped derail Democratic Senator Al Franken last year, new research shows.
While everyone has been focused on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election to support Donald Trump, the Franken takedown originated in—and was propelled by—a strategic online campaign with digital tentacles reaching to, of all places, Japan. Analysts have now mapped out how Hooters pinup girl and lad-mag model Leeann Tweeden's initial accusation against Franken became effective propaganda after right-wing black ops master Roger Stone first hinted at the allegation.
A pair of Japan-based websites, created the day before Tweeden came forward, and a swarm of related Twitter bots made the Tweeden story go viral and then weaponized a liberal writer's criticism of Franken. The bot army—in tandem with prominent real, live members of the far right who have Twitter followers in the millions, such as Mike Cernovich—spewed thousands of posts, helping the #FrankenFondles hashtag and the "Franken is a groper" meme effectively silence the testimonies of eight former female staffers who defended the Minnesota Democrat before he resigned last year.
The operation commenced on November 15, when Stone—who is now banned from Twitter for racism and profanity—tweeted from one of his accounts “Roger Stone says it’s Al Franken’s ‘time in the barrel.’ Franken next in long list of Democrats accused of ‘grabby’ behavior.”
On the same day, a developer named Atsufumi Otsuka registered a web domain in Japan called RealUSA.site, and a fake-news website soon emerged at that web address, according to research shared with the voting rights outfit Unhack the Vote.
Tweeden’s account of Franken groping her was first amplified by a network of right-wing media, including KABC in Los Angeles, where Tweeden has a radio show, The Hill, Infowars and Breitbart, which mobilized within hours of Stone's tweet and the release of a picture of a Tweeden and Franken at a USO performance before he was a senator.
By November 17, the trending of “Al Franken” was officially also a Russian intelligence operation, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an organization tracking Russian social media accounts, based on a sample taken that day of 600 of the fake accounts.
Five days later, on November 20, right-wing provocateur Charles Johnson tweeted, “Thinking of offering money to people who go on tv and say Al Frank is a predator.”
That same day, Otsuka registered a second domain in Japan for another fake-news site, VotyUS.me. Both accounts used the same Google analytics account ID and Apple app ID, and the name of the servers and registration for both sites were virtually identical, researchers found.
On December 7, just before Democrats started calling for Franken to step down, the freshly minted Japan-based fake sites went to work and re-published an article by Ijeoma Oluo, a liberal writer, urging women and activists to stop supporting Franken. Oluo had posted the opinion piece, titled “Dear Al Franken, I’ll Miss You but You Can’t Matter Anymore,” on a much smaller website, with a reach of 10,000 followers.
Suddenly, thousands of apparently fake Twitter accounts were tweeting the title of the article—but linking back to one of the two Japanese-registered fake-news sites created in conjunction with the right-wing anti-Franken campaign. The bot accounts normally tweeted about celebrities, bitcoin and sports, but on that day, they were mobilized against Franken. Researchers have found that each bot account had 30 to 60 followers, all Japanese. The first follower for each account was either Japanese or Russian.
“We began to suspect that this legitimate opinion piece [by Oluo] had been weaponized for political gain by dozens of twitter accounts, all of them repeatedly tweeting links to the two domains registered in Japan in late November,” Unhack the Vote's Mike Farb wrote in Medium. “Strong similarities between the accounts combined with clear connection to the two recently-established Japanese websites verified our suspicions.”
Soon, Farb and company realized they had “stumbled upon a sophisticated botnet being used to spread alt-right propaganda.”
The researcher who discovered the botnet has nicknamed it “the Voty botnet,” and it is still alive today, although currently not operating in service of any political propaganda. The researchers estimate that more than 400 accounts are in the botnet, although at any given time, only a subset are being deployed in the online American political wars.
The botnet has been spreading propaganda "for over two months now," according to the researchers, and Twitter is aware of it, and has not stopped it. "We know this because Twitter has suspended some spam accounts that follow our Voty bots," the researcher told Newsweek. "This shows that Twitter is aware that these 'follower' accounts are not legitimate. But if you look at the “who to follow” suggestion window when you are on a Voty botnet account, the suggestions are almost always other Voty Twitter bot accounts. This shows that Twitter is aware that these accounts are interrelated."
One question remains: Who is paying for this operation? The researchers believe that the operation was expensive. "We estimate dozens of hours of initial development time and at least one person working full time to produce and distribute content," one of the researchers told Newsweek. "Additionally, it's likely that an existing bot farm of compromised computers is basically being rented as a distributed host for these accounts."
Like targeted Facebook ads that Russian troll farms used in the 2016 election, Twitter bots have been around for years and were originally created for sales purposes. But since the 2016 election, arguably lost due to the right's superior utilization of darker online strategies, the left is not known to have created or mobilized its own fake cyber army to amplify its viewpoint.
"Agreed we need one," Democratic digital media strategist Jess McIntosh, who worked on Franken's campaign and for Hillary Clinton's bid for president, said in an email to Newsweek. "But it's harder to use these tactics when you can't rely on either lies OR hate to do it."
Franken resigned on January 2 and is back in private life. He could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
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