The Crowdsourced Russia Twitter Investigation Has Prompted A Harassment Complaint
Former British Member of Parliament Louise Mensch runs Twitter's intense investigation into Russian influence in American politics. A reporter for a Russian-backed outlet says she has gone too far.
An American social media personality and journalist filed a criminal complaint Monday against the journalist and former British MP Louise Mensch, alleging a "months long campaign of cyber stalking and harassment."
Cassandra Fairbanks, a conservative correspondent for the Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik, claims in the complaint, submitted to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center and shared with BuzzFeed News, that Mensch "has initiated a witch hunt against me, engaging in serious libel and encouraging others to dig up personal information."
Fairbanks's complaint appears to be first formal action against Mensch, who is the hub of a loose, crowdsourced investigation into Russian influence in American politics and society, rooted in the theory that Russian involvement in Donald Trump's electoral victory goes well beyond the extensive propaganda and hacking already documented by US intelligence agencies. That set of Twitter investigators have at times pointed toward stories later documented by reporters, but have at other times questioned the motives — and even existence — of people apparently unconnected to any Russian conspiracy. The consequences of those attacks have, to date, been virtual, unlike the delusional right-wing "pizzagate" narrative that prompted a gunman to visit a Washington pizza joint. But their focus on obscure individuals has come, those people say, at a real cost.
Last week, following a BuzzFeed News story about an anonymous pro-Trump bot master named MicroChip, Mensch and others publicly identified a California man as MicroChip. They based this claim on the man's resemblance to MicroChip's Twitter avatar picture (which is an image of a celebrity bodybuilder), his name (an extremely common name that matches one of MicroChip's various pseudonyms), and his interest in bitcoin. In tweets, the man called the claim "blind accusations with no fact checking" and said he had contacted Mensch, who did not respond.
The narrative curated by Mensch on her feed in hundreds of tweets a day features protagonists from Eric Garland, a self-described "futurist" known for a lengthy thread about game theory, to the #NeverTrump Republican strategist Rick Wilson, as well as villains led by Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. It has fingered such disparate targets as Fairbanks, the left-leaning publication The Intercept, and the weird Twitter comedian Leon Chang as part of a shadowy plot by the Putin regime to influence American politics.
Chang wrote Monday that a joking post backfired when Mensch identified him as a Russian agent.
Mensch, who has more than 200,000 followers and frequently appears on cable news, has become perhaps the loudest voice on the internet among those trying to uncover details of a Russian scheme.
Fairbanks became a major target of Mensch's starting with a February post, "The Carolina Conspiracy," which accused the Maryland woman of involvement in a byzantine plot that involved inventing the persona of a teenager to entice Anthony Weiner into an inappropriate sexting relationship. The alleged goal was to give the FBI a pretext to seize his phone, laden with emails from Hillary Clinton, and ultimately to pave the way for FBI director James Comey to release his possibly election-altering letter shortly before the contest.
BuzzFeed News subsequently interviewed the teenager in person. She is real, not invented.
Since the publication of that post, Mensch has tweeted about Fairbanks hundreds of times, including, per the complaint, "outlandish claims ... ranging from accusations of plastic surgery, to sex scandals, to allegations of treason." Mensch and her followers frequently comb the social media accounts of suspected Russian agents, like Fairbanks, in an attempt to connect friends and associates to the greater plot. Today, Mensch encouraged her followers to identify a man who appeared in an image at a rally Fairbanks attended over the weekend, implying that he might be a Russian agent.
According to Fairbanks, the man works for the crowdsourced investigations site WeSearchr and is named Tyler Bass. (Bass didn't respond to an inquiry.)
Mensch initially responded to BuzzFeed News' request for comment over Twitter direct message by questioning the validity of the reporter's past reporting and "asserting your source's word as fact."
Mensch then continued, "In the unlikely event that anybody whomsoever contacts me about her (alleged) false report, I will take a great deal of pleasure in discussing everything from her Guccifer2 contacts to her insane list of tweets with them, but I doubt I will ever hear another word on the matter." Mensch added that filing a false police report is illegal.
Fairbanks told BuzzFeed News she had submitted dozens of Mensch's tweets to Twitter but that the social network responded in each case that Mensch had not violated the site's terms of service.
Fairbanks denies being involved in a plot against Weiner, and said to BuzzFeed News that although she works for the Russian government, the notion she is a Russian agent is "insane."
"I feel like drawing attention to it is the wrong move," Fairbanks said. "But I think I'm out of other options."
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