After raising concerns that a massively popular partisan hashtag may have been amplified by Russian botnets, two top Democrats have yet to release Twitter’s explanation.
On Jan. 23, Californians Adam Schiff and Dianne Feinstein, respectively the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Twitter demanding an explanation for the surge on the site of tweets bearing the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo, a reference to a controversial Republican memo that alleges Justice Department impropriety in the FBI's Trump-Russia probe.
Now it looks likely that the currently classified memo will be seen by the public before Twitter's response. House Republicans on the Intelligence Committee voted Monday to seek the memo's declassification, a step President Trump has five days to act on. Everyone expects he'll approve.
Twitter sent Schiff and Feinstein its response late Friday evening. Representatives for the two legislators declined Monday and Tuesday to share the letter, and it's unclear if it will ever be released. Twitter declined to release the letter on its own.
That suggests the public may never know officially Twitter's findings to questions of whether Russian botnets influenced the spread of the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag, which, at one point last week, had become one of Twitter's most visible campaigns.
Schiff and Feinstein’s concern had compared the role of Russian botnets in the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign to the malign role of Russian trolls in spreading false news during the 2016 election.
"If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process,” Schiff and Feinstein said in their letter to Twitter. “This latest example of Russian interference is in keeping with Moscow's concerted, covert, and continuing campaign to manipulate American public opinion and erode trust in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions.”
That was the claim made by Hamilton 68, a project of the nonprofit German Marshall Fund of the United States that attempts to track Russian government–affiliated messaging on Twitter. Bret Schafter, a spokesperson for the Hamilton 68 project, told BuzzFeed News that accounts that normally boost messages affiliated with the Russian government had promoted #ReleaseTheMemo at a rate higher than any it had seen since it began operations in August.
But others suggested it would be hard to know that, given that many conservative Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers, including the president's son and well-known members of Congress, were tweeting the hashtag. Even Schafter suggested that Russian botnet accounts “likely represented a very, very small percentage of the overall engagement with the hashtag.”
Twitter offered no public statement on #ReleaseTheMemo, but some employees are known in internal discussions to have downplayed the idea that Russian bots, rather than American conservative leaders, played a major role in the hashtag's popularity.