Last week, a story suddenly emerged about a secret memo that would “end the Mueller investigation,” upend the FBI and launch a scandal “bigger than Watergate.” But surprisingly, several days later, the announcement that brought Republican congressmen nearly to tears, has resulted in nothing.
Now, in the wake of the initial blast, #ReleaseTheMemo looks much less like a news story, and much more like a test run for coordination between Republicans in Congress, Fox News pundits, and Russian media bots.
In this case, the memo that had Republicans weepy was generated by Devin Nunes (R-CA). The idea that Nunes, who has already cried wolf on this same topic at least twice in the past year, should be taken as a reputable source on anything related to FBI surveillance is ridiculous. Still, Republicans presented this as a document that would shake Washington to its roots.
On Thursday evening, Sean Hannity made this memo the focus of his program. Hannity presented the memo as definitive proof that the investigation by Robert Mueller would be forced to conclusion.
“Your witch hunt is now over. Time to close the doors.”
Then on Friday morning, Twitter exploded with the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. The demand came with eerie clockwork precision from thousands of accounts, including from that of Donald Trump Jr. But many of these accounts shared a common feature—there was no human being on the other end.
The latest attempt by some Republicans in Congress to discredit the Trump-Russia investigation has been embraced by Russian bots and trolls on social media.
At the same time, the “news” division at Fox, along with Breitbart and other conservative sites turned the memo into their top story of the morning—stories that Republicans then picked up as “proof” of their earlier accusations. All of which suggests that #ReleaseTheMemo isn’t a news story—it’s the latest test of a weaponized media system.
There’s something extremely notable in the Fox News stories concerning the memo—how they described the memo itself.
A four-page memo circulating in Congress that reveals alleged United States government surveillance abuses is being described by lawmakers as “shocking,” “troubling” and “alarming,” with one congressman likening the details to KGB activity in Russia.
Again and again, the stories appearing in Fox and other sources—even most mainstream news sources—describe this four page document as simply “a memo circulating in Congress” or “a memo circulating among lawmakers.”
All of these articles leave out what would seem to be a critical point—who wrote the memo? As it turns out, this document wasn’t created by some investigatory team within the FBI or DOJ, and it wasn’t the result of some effort to look at this issue by a committee within the House. The authorship of the memo is, in fact, quite clear.
The FBI has not been permitted to see the memo Rep. Devin Nunes and his staff wrote about alleged abuses by the intelligence community, The Daily Beast has learned.
The memo was written by Congressman Nunes. The same person who attempted to create a scandal around “unmasking.” The same person who claimed, falsely, to have earlier found evidence of illegal surveillance by the Obama administration. The same person who repeatedly tried to impugn members of Obama’s staff for activities that turned out to be normal and routine.
Not only is Nunes the author of the memo, the whole idea that there is some effort to keep the memo from the public is a complete fiction. If Republicans want the memo released, they can release it. Instead, as the Daily Beast article indicates, Nunes is afraid to even show his memo to the FBI. Undoubtedly that’s because, like ever other time Nunes has rushed in front of the cameras to report that he had some investigation-halting news, the contents of the memo will turn out to be nothing but distortions, information taken out of context, and straight-up lies.
Whether or not the memo is released is entirely in the hands of the people who are demanding its release. It’s as if a prison guard were standing outside a cell, keys in hand, screaming for someone to open the door.
Even though they’re completely in control, there’s a good chance Republicans will never open that door. After all, why should they? Leaving the Nunes memo in the dark leaves open the possibility that it might contain actual information, and that proof of crimes by Obama is somehow being kept out of sight. “The Memo,” like “The Dossier” can now enter the Republican lexicon as a term totally divorced from the reality of the contents; a standard club for battering the Mueller investigation.
So why are Republicans shouting so loudly about a story with no real basis, where they have no real desire to see it carried through?
It shows every sign of being a test.
Before the election, Russians carried out hundreds, if not thousands, of tests to work out the best way to use their social media tools. They issued stories from multiple fabricated “news sites” with slightly different wording, then tracked the results to see which propagated more quickly and more thoroughly. They created organizations dedicated to ideas like Texas succession, as tests of their ability to infiltrate Facebook, Twitter, discussion boards, email lists, and blogs. They tested issuing the same story, or slight variations on that story, from a dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand sites at the same time. They refined their ability to use hash tags and standard social media tracking tools to check how well a story was working, and to determine the best means of inserting a story into the news cycle. They’ve kept their skills up post-election by continuing to plant false stories that cause hatred and division.
What happened last Thursday was a different kind of test—an integration test.
- Republicans pushed a story to traditional media, planting the seed that there was some underlying fact.
- Fox News punditry played up the importance of the story, giving it visibility on the right, and providing ominous, open-ended statements that there was more to come.
- Russian bots launched into the story in coordination with prominent social media accounts on the right, creating a “trending” story
- The apparent strength of the story in social media the brought it back to the attention of traditional media, which treated both the Republican claims and the social media outcry as if there was a real demand.
A demand to release a memo that Republicans wrote, from a constraint that Republicans fabricated.
The heavy demands of supporting the GOP position in the shutdown has forced Russian bots to move #ReleaseTheMemo to their second-most popular hashtag. But this test wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.
By election day, Republicans in Congress, conservative media, and Russian bots will have their partnership well-refined.