Media’s narrative of Russian bots pushing conservative issues called 'inherently inaccurate'

Several mainstream media outlets, including CNN and The Washington Post, have published misleading stories about Russian bots boosting conservative issues across social media, according to a detailed report by The Daily Caller.

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The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 dashboard is a service that aims to display data about Russian propaganda efforts. It is often used by news organizations seeking to pin support for conservative media, conspiracy theories and right-leaning views on Russian bots, but the group’s communication’s director, Bret Schafer, says most reporting on the dashboard is “inherently inaccurate.”

“Bots are only a small portion of the network that we monitor… yet most of the third party reporting on the dashboard continues to appear with some variation of the headline ‘Russian bots are pushing X.’”

- Hamilton 68 dashboard's Bret Schafer

Schafer told Daily Caller’s Peter Hasson that his group doesn’t specifically track bots.

“More specifically, bots are only a small portion of the network that we monitor,” Schafer said. “We’ve tried to make this point clear in all our published reporting, yet most of the third-party reporting on the dashboard continues to appear with some variation of the headline ‘Russian bots are pushing X.’”

Daily Caller found several examples of inaccurate reporting, including a Business Insider article originally headlined, “Russian bots are rallying behind embattled Fox News host Laura Ingraham as advertisers dump her show.” The inaccurate story resulted in a Washington Post story, citing Business Insider, headlined “Russian bots are tweeting their support of embattled Fox News host Laura Ingraham.”

The truth is that nobody has any idea if the social media accounts tweeting support for Ingraham were actually bots. Business Insider eventually corrected its story, but it had already been viewed by more than 100,000 people – most of whom, presumably, won’t ever see the correction.

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Hasson pointed out that sources used in the inaccurate articles were misrepresented, such as the Botcheck.me, another site used to track propaganda. Botcheck’s co-founder, Ash Bhat, admitted that there is no proof to show that the bots his site tracks are Russian – but that didn’t stop Business Insider and the Post from using “Russian bots” in headlines.

“There isn’t any data that actually points to any specific location or group,” Bhat told Daily Caller.

"Categorizing all bots as being [a] ‘left’ or ‘right’ issue is wrong and only further divides us."

- Botcheck’s cofounder Ash Bhat

Bhat said that bots are on both sides of the aisle and they have a shared purpose, which is to divide America. "Categorizing all bots as being [a] ‘left’ or ‘right’ issue is wrong and only further divides us,” he said.

CNN published a story after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., claiming that Russian-linked bots were promoting pro-gun messages on Twitter. The story cited both Hamilton 68 dashboard and Botcheck but was “misleading,” according to Hasson.

“First, the Hamilton 68 data doesn’t support the claim that the Russian bots were pushing specifically pro-gun arguments,” Hassan wrote. “Second… Botcheck’s data doesn’t support the claim that Russian bots were only pushing pro-gun messaging after the shooting.”

The New York Times has also cited the Hamilton 68 dashboard to claim that Russian bots sprang into action following the massacre in Parkland. Even reliably liberal BuzzFeed News is aware of the issue and published a piece headlined, “Stop blaming Russian bots for everything.”

BuzzFeed specifically pointed to the Times article, calling it “total bulls--t,” before noting that Hamilton 68 dashboard is the source “nearly every time you see a story blaming Russian bots for something” despite its own co-founder being skeptical.

“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” Hamilton 68 dashboard co-founder Clint Watts told BuzzFeed. “They are not all in Russia… We don’t even think they’re all commanded in Russia.”

Several other news organizations, including the Chicago Tribune and Axios have cited Hamilton 68 dashboard when blaming Russian bots for various social media campaigns. But it seems that many of the misleading articles could easily be avoided if content creators simply did a little digging.

Schafer told Daily Caller that “the vast majority of the misinterpretations and misunderstandings of Hamilton 68 would be solved if those reporting on the dashboard would read our original methodology paper and follow-up paper.”

It will be interesting to see if The Daily Caller’s report helps prevent mainstream news organizations from blaming Russian bots the next time a conservative message is being spread on Twitter.

CNN and The Washington Post did not immediately respond to requests for comment.