Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, revelations that a Russian disinformation campaign had helped sweep the 45th president to power shook the media and the wider culture. The unfolding drama of the Mueller Report and a Senate investigative panel gripped the nation for the next four years. But now, journalist Matt Taibbi has revealed that the source of many of the claims of ongoing Russian disinformation during the Trump presidency, Hamilton 68, was itself a disinformation operation concocted by former US intelligence officials. Matt Taibbi joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his findings and dissect how legacy media, the public, and even Congress were taken along for the ride in the ‘Russiagate’ saga.
Matt Taibbi is a journalist, author, and co-host of the Useful Idiots podcast.
Studio: Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden
Video Post-Production: Adam Coley
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron
Chris Hedges: Matt Taibbi has published an investigation – Which you can read on his Substack – About a vast propaganda campaign called Hamilton 68, launched a year after Donald Trump won the presidency. It smeared critics of the Democratic Party from the left and the right as Russian assets. Hamilton 68 claimed it used a complex data analysis and relied on so-called disinformation experts to ferret out fake news on social media that emanated from the Kremlin.
Hamilton 68, a computerized dashboard designed to be used by reporters and academics to “measure Russian disinformation” was run by Democratic operatives including John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, and figures from the intelligence agencies such as the CIA, the FBI, and Homeland Security, as well as neoconservatives and establishment Republicans, such as Bill Crystal, who do not support Trump and have been warmly embraced by the Democratic Party.
Mainstream news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, PBS, NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, as well as Mother Jones, which ran 14 stories based on the group’s alleged research, cited Hamilton 68 as an authoritative source, even as the site refused to disclose the data or methods it used to make its assessments. Hundreds, if not thousands, of media headlines were flagged as Russian bought infiltrations in online discussions about Brett Kavanaugh, Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign, the Parkland shooting, US missile strikes in Syria, and Bernie Sanders’s campaign, many other stories. Fact checking sites such as Politi Fact and Snopes also relied on Hamilton 68.
Taibbi, given access to Twitter’s internal memos and emails by Elon Musk, who bought Twitter, was able to expose not only fraudulent claims of Hamilton 68, but the massive failure of the press, which was a full partner in one of the worst forms of censorship since the red baiting of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, one that targeted people with dissident or unconventional opinions and accused them, in essence, of un-American activities.
So let’s go back, just set the stage. This is, I think his name was… Was it Watts? This FBI guy, Clint Watts. But set the stage right after the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s response, just to remind viewers of the loss, and how that response led to the rise of so-called disinformation experts and groups like Hamilton 68.
Matt Taibbi: Well, it’s a complicated story. I think the backdrop to the Hamilton 68 story is, if you really want to look at the full timeline, the Columbia Journalism Review has a whole 26,000 word piece this week. But the shortcut version of this story is that after Trump won the election, Chris, there was immediately a series of stories coming from different directions saying that the election was illegitimate, that Trump had been assisted by Russians, that there was some kind of collusion going on, and that there was disinformation in the news media that had been amplified by Russian accounts that Trump’s own accounts and hashtags and tweets had been amplified by Russian forces. And then formally in, I believe it was August of 2017, this group Hamilton 68 came out. It’s an outgrowth of both the German Marshall Fund and a think tank called the Alliance for Securing Democracy. And it was basically a tool designed to be used by reporters and academics that “track Russian disinformation” by monitoring accounts that were called linked, “linked to Russian influence activities online.”
Now, they never disclosed what was on this list or what they were actually tracking, and it was only by accident looking through some Twitter files, emails that we find this big conversation where internally Twitter is saying, we’ve got the list. We’ve reversed engineered it, and they’re not Russians. These are mostly ordinary people. Out of 644 accounts, only 36 of them began in Russia, and most of the rest of them, from what I’ve found, were ordinary people, a lot of them right leaning, but some of them on the left, too. So it was a fraud. It was a big gigantic media fraud, basically, where I think the story here is equal parts disinformation on the part of this think tank, but also, as you alluded to, the enormous media failure, which would be… I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that.
Chris Hedges: Of those 36, weren’t a lot of them from your story RT? It was Russia Today. It was the Russian television station.
Matt Taibbi: There were several RT related accounts. There were some Sputnik accounts. There were some Russian embassy accounts. There was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, if I’m not mistaken. So a lot of these were sort of official Russian accounts. Now, Hamilton eventually transitioned to a more open system that was only tracking Russian official accounts, which is interesting in itself that that’s actually more of a real service. But what they did is they piled all these real accounts that had real opinions that maybe a channel like RT or the Russian Foreign Ministry, they might have an interest that coincided, but these were real people in America and Canada and Great Britain who had these opinions. They either favored Trump or were retweeting hashtags like #WalkAway or #FireMcMaster. And this group just described that as part of a Russian influence campaign when, in fact, it was not that.
Chris Hedges: Just give us, before we go in, you actually reached out to these people, some of these people. I’ll let you explain that. But just give us a sense of the scale, because it was massive. It just dominated the press. I mean, we were talking before we went on the air. I think one of the reasons the media organizations are going to ignore it is because what are they going to say? We’re sorry for the last four years. It’s such an egregious failure that it’s… To admit what they did, it ends up looking like an article from The Onion.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, this would be a difficult thing to retract, in a way. I wanted to hear what the innocent explanation was not only from this group, but from all the media companies that ran these stories. So I not only sent queries up, but I kind of threw a fit about it publicly on Twitter and online, basically daring them or taunting them in an effort to try to get comment out. Because if there was some reason that I wasn’t privy to, I really wanted to hear it. And they no commented to me until the story made a big splash on the internet, at which point some of them started to come in.
Now, the media people haven’t commented yet, but there’s no excuse for what happened with them. Because you and I have both been reporters, Chris, if someone comes to me with a story and says, we’re tracking Russian… We have a magic box that tracks Russian influence, and they are connected to all these organic political activities, you think about things like #WalkAway, that’s Democrats who are leaving the party, hashtag #FireMcMaster, that’s Republicans who are against HR McMaster, right? #ReleaseTheMemo. That’s Republicans who want Devin Nunez’s memo out. All these things were “linked” to Russian influence on all the biggest channels and newspapers in America. And the source was wrong. I mean, again, what would you do as a reporter, Chris? I’d say, what’s in the box? Right? Tell me how it works. And they never asked that question.
Chris Hedges: Well, I love this. This is from your article, it’s Laura Rosenberg, the two founders of Hamilton 68, the blue and red team of former counselor to Marco Rubio, Jamie Fly, and Hillary for America, foreign policy advisor, Laura Rosenberger told Politico they couldn’t reveal the names of the accounts because the Russians will simply shut them down. It’s kind of like Joe McCarthy’s empty briefcase.
Matt Taibbi: Oh yeah, there are exactly 57 [inaudible].
Chris Hedges: Right.
Matt Taibbi: I guess I’m mixing [inaudible]. That was [inaudible] candidate. But yeah, that’s what they were doing. They were saying inside this thing, there are subversives who are linked to Russia, but they weren’t that. I looked at the list. The chronology here is a little complicated. Twitter was upset about all this stuff, and so they figured out what was in the list, being in a unique position to do it because they have the data. And so they recreate the list, and it’s full of all these people. It’s like Consortium editor, Joe Loreo. There are all these small, low influenced Trump accounts with names like Classy Girl for DJT, Trump Dyke is another one. There’s lots and lots of these people. And I reached out to probably a couple of dozen of them, talked to a bunch of them on the phone. They’re all over the world, but they’re real people. They’re not Russian agents. They just had these opinions. And so they were used as fodder to create these fake news stories.
Chris Hedges: So why did the most prestigious and powerful media organizations, and why did universities such as Harvard, Princeton, MIT, why do you think they so enthusiastically signed on for the witch hunt?
Matt Taibbi: Well, I think this is connected to a bigger picture that I don’t fully have yet. I mean, I think there are things that are going to come into view, maybe not necessarily for me, but there are people working on it. And the idea is, I think, that this whole concept of Russian disinformation was used as a battering ram to get inside of companies like Twitter and to influence them to open their doors to government efforts to moderate the platforms.
We don’t like the fact that you’re not letting us censor this or that. We want to have more direct control over things. And you are housing Russian disinformation activities online. They all got dragged to the Senate floor and the House floor in late 2017, if you remember that. It started with Senator Warner, Mark Warner of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It spread to all the House committees, House Intelligence Committee. Then there was energy and commerce. It never ended. The companies finally said uncle and let these people in. I think this is all related. These stories were used, basically, to make the argument that you have to let us start censoring people.
Chris Hedges: So as you know, I was overseas for 20 years, and it just smells like these CIA front groups. CIA, in some countries I was in, actually owned newspapers. But do we know the genesis of it? Do we know how deep these roots go?
Matt Taibbi: That’s a tough question to answer yet. I think we got to look at some of those things. If you look at the advisory board of who’s on the think tank that birthed this thing, it’s chock full of former intelligence officials. Michael Morrell, the acting CIA director. He was going to be Hillary’s CIA chief, Mike Chertoff, who was the Homeland Security Chief during the Iraq Wars, Iraq period. There’s a deputy, former deputy head of the NSA on there. And then Hamilton’s also connected to a company called New Knowledge that was an advisor to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. A number of their people were involved in testifying before the Senate and the House.
Some of those folks, if you look at their backgrounds, they have definitely government ties, Department of Defense specifically. We don’t know yet exactly, but I think it’s a very interesting question that we need to know more about the genesis of how this got created. And look, Hamilton 68 is just one of these shops. It was the progenitor version of this kind of activity. There are a lot of these things now proliferating in universities and then in the think tank space.
Chris Hedges: Twitter was complicit, because as you point out, Roth, I think, was his name. They did, through this reverse engineering, realize that this was a scam, but they did not make it public, and continued to engage in the censorship that was demanded of them. Talk about that. And also, can you talk about Twitter’s secret blacklist?
Matt Taibbi: The first question, yes. Yoel Roth, who is the Trust and Safety Chief at Twitter, who became kind of an infamous figure after the first batch of Twitter files was released, because he was influential in suppressing the Hunter Biden story, but he actually pushed back against this. There’s a number of quotes from him. He’s saying, “I think we have to just call this out on the BS it is.” That’s one of the more explosive quotes from him. He’s saying that people are… This dashboard will take ordinary Russians and accuse, I’m sorry, ordinary conservatives and accuse them of being Russian.
But he was met with opposition within the company, senior former White House officials who worked in the comms department were saying we have to be careful on how we push back. And there’s a gentleman named Carlos Manier who went on to work for Pete Buttigieg who says, I want to push back too, but we have to play the longer game. And so as you say, Twitter’s role is difficult to assess, because on the one hand, they didn’t play ball with Hamilton 68, but they also didn’t make it public either. So I don’t know how you call that one. I mean, they are complicit in a way, for sure.
Chris Hedges: So there were three major classes of accounts on the Hamilton list, and they included media figures, David Horowitz, Joe Loreo, you mentioned, the editor-in-chief of Consortium News. Explain those three accounts, how they worked.
Matt Taibbi: As I said before, there was a thin layer of real Russian accounts at the top. Then there’s a big middle layer of basically real ordinary people with very low followings. There’s a few small media accounts in there. Not small, I would say medium sized. So Joe Loreo went on to be editor of Consortium. At the time, he was just a writer for Consortium living in Iraq. He’s on the list. There was a conservative broadcast figure named Dennis Michael Lynch who was on Newsmax and Fox. He’s on there, and there’s an internet site called the Sirius Report that’s on there. There’s a few media sites, but then mainly it’s just these regular people with less than 5,000 followers. And then at the very bottom, there is a thin layer, I would say somewhere beneath 20% – And Twitter did a forensic analysis of this – That was half dead, zombified accounts that followers were decreasing. Now, that could happen for any number of reasons at Twitter. That could be because you got banned for something, or it could be because you’re a bot.
So the way to understand this I think is best: Real Russians at the top, then a whole bunch of ordinary people, and then there’s some suspicious accounts at the bottom and they might just be commercial. Who knows what they are. Hard to say.
Chris Hedges: So let’s talk about the press formula. I love it when you do these. You have a habit of boiling it right down to the essence. You said, here’s the formula for how it worked. Defamation became hardwired into the media landscape. “Research Institute makes invented pot claims, reporters toss said claims at hated targets like Tulsi Gabbard, headlines flow.” You said, “The scam needs just three elements: Credentials of someone like former FBI agent Watts, the absence of any semblance of fact checking, and the silence of companies like Twitter.” But it was. It did. It worked exactly as you pointed out. And with just no incredulity. I mean they just swallowed it whole.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, and that’s the part that is hard for me to grasp, because I can understand a couple of reporters getting beat by this, but all of them? I mean, that’s difficult to understand. And then there were obviously a few of us… I know you would never follow. You and I talked about this at the time, how ridiculous all these stories were. People like Glenn Greenwald specifically called out this site. I did as well, a few times. There was actually, believe it or not, a Tucker Carlson segment about it. But I would say 99% of the working reporters fell for this. And nobody within these institutions to whom this was pitched backed up on it as far as I know. I haven’t found that yet. But there aren’t reporters coming out of the woodwork who said, oh, I got pitched by these folks, then I didn’t do that story. Or I exposed them.
Because there’s only two ways this can go. If somebody pitches you and you find out they’re fake, you have an obligation at that point to out it, don’t you? I would think. It’s remarkable not only that it happened, but also now that we know what they did that nobody’s backing up.
Chris Hedges: I think your fundamental job as a reporter is to determine whether it’s fake or not. That’s what being a reporter means. But there was zero effort.
Matt Taibbi: Right. And that’s what’s so amazing. Again, you know, you think about what you did for a living, what I’ve done for so long. You think about what somebody like Jeff Gerth did for years before this Columbia Journalism Review piece that came out this week, phone call after phone call to ascertain what happened. And during this period, you had these incredible pieces where somebody at a magazine like Mother Jones would say, here’s what Russian bots are pushing today. And they would just look at the dashboard and then just start writing. There’s no middle part to this where you make a phone call.
So they basically automated the sourcing process for these folks, and it was phony. So I think it’s a dangerous thing. And the problem with this is that while this was a pretty simple, cartoonish, almost scam, there are lots of more sophisticated ones out there that will be harder to unravel.
Chris Hedges: I mean, David Corn at Mother Jones has dined out on this for five years, and I think you mentioned before he’s written some kind of a response to Jeff Gerth. What did he say? That –
Matt Taibbi: The Columbia Journalism Review’s 24,000 word piece is a big fail. And again, at first I sympathized. I knew David a little bit, and in this business, it happens. Sometimes sources lie to you, and you screw up. You fall for something. It does happen. It shouldn’t. It is not like being a doctor where if you screw up, somebody dies, necessarily. But sometimes mistakes happen, and you get a source like Christopher Steele who comes to you and he’s got all these credentialed people vouching for him. You could see how that could happen, but you gotta own it when that happens. You can’t turn around and attack people for describing how that was wrong. I was very upset by Mother Jones‘s response to this whole thing.
These organizations need to reestablish their credibility. And Gerth, who worked on your paper, Bob Woodward now is saying that these companies need to look themselves in the mirror, and they won’t do it. Curious to hear your thoughts about why.
Chris Hedges: I think it goes back to your book Hate Inc. First, tell us what the response has been. I mean, it’s been this deafening silence.
Matt Taibbi: Nothing, nothing. Again, it’s a 20, I guess it started out as a 26,000 word piece. If a story, a book length investigation in the Columbia Journalism Review doesn’t get you 30 seconds on CNN, then I don’t know what would prompt a response at this point.
Chris Hedges: Well, but what about the data? I mean, you have printed the data and there’s no response.
Matt Taibbi: Well, it’s worse than that, they’ve actively said the opposite. I mean, not that I mind, I’m used to it at this point, but there have been lots of stories about what an awful person I am and what an awful person Elon Musk is.
Chris Hedges: All of that’s true. But it doesn’t take away from the work of your journalism. I mean, it’s irrelevant what kind of person you are.
Matt Taibbi: Well, yeah, of course. Yeah.
Chris Hedges: I mean, nobody’s ever accused Sye Hersh of being warm and fuzzy. I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s just silly. I’m joking of course, because I like you very much, but it just has nothing to do with the topic.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, it’s a total… To use a journalism cliche, it’s a non-denial denial. You’re not addressing the issue. There was an amazing line in the Mother Jones piece about the CGR thing where they’re saying Gerth is arguing that the collusion didn’t happen. But, in a sense, it did happen. I don’t know, that’s exactly what we’re trained to assess. Did it happen really or in a sense, right? If it’s just in a sense, we can’t print it. That’s the entire purpose of a newspaper.
Chris Hedges: What you’re watching is the complete moral bankruptcy in real time of the press, and I’ll go to your book Hate Inc., because I think you made an important point, where media organizations, unlike the old model, have now siloed themselves to cater to a particular demographic. And when you’re catering to that demographic, what you’re in essence doing is feeding that demographic what it wants to hear.
And we had mentioned the other day when we spoke about the Caliphate podcast at The New York Times, which was based on one source that was completely fraudulent. And I had been in the Middle East for seven years. I remember listening to just the first 10 minutes, and it had this kind of snuff porn quality to it, people being crucified on crosses and stuff. And it just stank of fiction, having come out of the Middle East, and there’s no accountability. I mean, the reporter wasn’t fired because they fed their demographic what they wanted to hear. And I think that that has eroded accountability because it all becomes about stroking the demographic as a commercial model. I’m just summing up the points you made in your book.
Matt Taibbi: Oh no, but you’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. Yeah. Once upon a time. And not to be all back in the day about it, but if you printed something like Caliphate, if you did a story like that and put your whole weight into it, and it was completely fake, and you did no work to see whether it happened, it was a career ending thing. It could be a career ending thing. And that hung over every reporter’s head. That was the defense mechanism of the business. That’s gone. There is no sword of Damocles over your head now when you work. If you make a mistake, it’s accepted. It’s understood, because this is an entertainment product now. It’s not a service, and you’re not trying to determine the truth, it’s not like an evidentiary process. It’s different. I mean, I don’t know how to think about it, honestly.
Chris Hedges: Well, and if you report, as you have done, in such a way that discredits or critiques or undermines that narrative, then – I think you and Glen have become examples of this – You are very viciously attacked. I don’t follow it closely, but I think they’re now calling you some kind of closet right-winger. I don’t know what they’re calling you. But that becomes a response.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, that’s the go-to response. Now, The Washington Post, amusingly, actually described me as conservative journalist in one of their pieces. And before I even heard about it, there was such an uproar online that they silently edited it out of the piece.
Chris Hedges: Isn’t it The Washington Post that won the Pulitzer for the Russiagate material that they then took down off their website? Is that the same?
Matt Taibbi: That’s the same Washington Post that ran a house editorial this week talking about how objectivity is dead. And I was no fan of objectivity, necessarily, as a model, but as an aspiration, absolutely. That was what the business was all about. We’re trying to ascertain what’s true or not. That’s the basic function of what we do. And they’re moving into something, some other world now, and it’s very sad to watch.
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s why they’re crucifying Julian Assange. I mean, the Democrats loved him with the Iraq, Afghan war logs, and then he had the honesty to print the Podesta emails. And if you have them and don’t make them public, you can do that as a choice, but you can’t then call yourself a journalist. So I find the state, and I’ve been in the business a long time, it’s extremely depressing.
I want to, before we close, bring up, so we saw the Biden administration attempt to appoint this woman, Nina Yanakovich, as the Russian disinformation czar. She’s been at the forefront of Russian disinformation. She calls Julian Assange scum. So they tried to set this up in Homeland Security. It was too much, too unpalatable to establish at this moment a Ministry of Truth in the United States. Is that where we’re headed?
Matt Taibbi: I think that was the idea. Whether we’re going to get there or not is an open question. I think some of the companies don’t want to go along. That’s the subtext, actually, of the whole Trump years, is that the government wanted increasing amounts of control over these platforms. Some of the platforms, sometimes for reasons because they were greedy and they wanted to keep some certain foreign markets open, push back. And now there’s been this increasingly intense cry for access by agencies like the DHS, which was what Nina Jaquez was going to be, was going to be under Homeland Security.
While they did still go through with something like that, they just didn’t create the open board. Lee Fong did a report in The Intercept outing how that works. We’ve seen sort of echoes of it in the Twitter files. We do see how requests for content moderation are routed through the FBI and DHS specifically. There’s a bureaucracy that’s been set up. So that’s what they want. Whether they’re going to get it absolutely or how much they’ve gotten it is an open question. As you see, some of the companies are breaking ranks openly, and that’s what this argument’s about.
Chris Hedges: Well, aren’t they getting it through subterfuge, in essence?
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, no, they’re creating a panic around something. And look, yes, these things all do exist. There are foreign information operations that do exist. Russia has one. They based it on ours, but they do have one. They do these things. They do create social media accounts. They do try to introduce themes into our conversations. And there are domestic extremists in America. As you know, there are lunatics on all sides. But there are, of course, racists and crazies and people who make threats. It’s a difficult question, though, how to deal with that. But they amplified these problems in order to get access. They said, these problems are emergencies. We must get in. You must let us have control. And they lied about the scale of it.
Chris Hedges: Well, the difference is this isn’t against extremism. It is about protecting a neoliberal order, which has visited tremendous suffering on the American people that they have no intention of changing. In fact, they will accelerate it. And so it becomes, in essence, finding a scapegoat. I mean, the reason Trump wins the election is not because the white working class has been impoverished and dethroned, but because of Russia.
That was Matt Taibbi. You can read his article, which you should read, on Substack on Hamilton 68. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.