Back to the 2020 Candidates

We were working on some client projects last week and never got a chance to do a post. So we have some catching up to do. We’ll talk about the election events of the past couple weeks in a series of posts over the next few days, starting with Tulsi Gabbard’s announcement.

Tulsi Gabbard Announces

Tulsi Gabbard announced her candidacy earlier this month on February 3. The announcement garnered some attention on Twitter, but ultimately only at a second-tier volume.

Mention Counts for Democratic Primary Candidates during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

Her bump is obscured by the top-tier candidates Harris (light green) and Warren (violet).

Daily Mention Counts for Warren, Harris, Klobuchar, Gabbard and Schultz, January 26 to Febraury 11, 2019

But ultimately, she may be the single largest victim of the Howard Schultz media blitz, which overlaps extremely closely with her campaign launch. 

Daily Mention Counts for Gabbard (silver) and Schultz (pink), January 26 to Febraury 11, 2019

Russian Support: A Rorschach Test in Tweets

Current Treatment of Left-Right Bias Obscures a Democratic Foreign Policy Wedge

The bias distribution for Gabbard during her first week is suggestive of a somewhat successful roll-out within the party, despite a smaller volume of engagement. Conversation is concentrated in the credible-left quadrant of the bias distribution.

Bias Distribution of Accounts Mentioning Tulsi Gabbard from February 2 to February 8, 2019

But these numbers obscure a stark divide within the Democratic Party base on the issue of foreign policy. Simplifying significantly, the divide centers on how assertive the US should be in its foreign policy.

The Devil in the Details

A more illustrative story lies in the contents of what was actually said about Tulsi Gabbard during the first week of her campaign. As background, the top three most circulated sites mentioning Gabbard in her first week were:

  1. The Intercept
  2. NBC News
  3. Hill Reporter

And the top 6 most retweeted accounts mentioning her were:

  1. Sarah Abdallah (sahouraxo)
  2. Glenn Greenwald (ggreenwald)
  3. Caroline Orr (RVAWonk)
  4. NBC News (NBCNews)
  5. Bill Browder (Billbrowder)
  6. Wikileaks (wikileaks)

As I mentioned above, the bias distributions do little to distinguish between two major “left-of-center” constituencies on this list. For example, NBC News and Glenn Greenwald each have credible-left audiences that center in roughly the same region.

Bias Distribution of Accounts Tweeting Links to NBC News’ Gabbard Story from February 2 to February 8, 2019

Although Greenwald does get more right-of-center re-circulation, both credible and extreme.

Bias Distribution of Accounts Retweeting Greenwald’s Gabbard Tweets February 2 to February 8, 2019

But, as we will see in the next few subsections,  these two left-of-center audiences are in loud disagreement on matters of US foreign policy. 

Timeline of a Roll-Out

The fight in the early days of the Gabbard roll-out centered on the role of Russian outlets in promoting her campaign. NBC News published a story just before her announcement which showed that Kremlin-backed media had been more prolific and more positive about her campaign than others, suggestive of support.1 Both Greenwald and Wikileaks were quick to dismiss the article as a “smear”.  

NBC News (February 2, Morning)

The NBC News story was published on February 2 at 4am (times are PT). But the tweet followed a few hours later.

Most Highly Circulated Tulsi Gabbard Story from NBC News during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

By that time, Hill Reporter had tweeted its own aggregation of the story.

Most Highly Circulated Tulsi Gabbard Story from Hill Reporter during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

Wikileaks (February 2, Evening)

Meanwhile, Wikileaks was promoting a successful Gabbard launch, with an emphasis on her foreign policy.

Frequently Retweeted Comment From Wikileaks during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

Wikileaks’ history with respect to Russian influence campaigns is well-documented. 

Bill Browder (February 2, Night)

By that night, Bill Browder, a prominent businessman responsible for the promotion of a global Magnitsky Act,2 noted the story with a tweet of his own.

Most Retweeted Comment From Bill Browder during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

Greenwald-Wikileaks (February 3, Morning)

The following morning, the Intercept released a story responding to NBC News. Glenn Greenwald wrote the story and the tweet with its most frequently retweeted link. In it he describes the original story as a “smear” and frames its quality in terms of a single source (New Knowledge), who was recently outed in a fraud scandal during the Alabama special election of Doug Jones.

Highly Retweeted Comment From Glenn Greenwald during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

The story concludes with a betrayal of Greenwald’s core motive.

That’s because the playbook used by the axis of the Democratic Party, NBC,MSNBC, neocons, and the intelligence community has been, is, and will continue to be a very simple one: to smear any adversary of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party — whether on the left or the right — as a stooge or asset of the Kremlin (a key target will undoubtedly be, and indeed already is, Bernie Sanders).

To accomplish this McCarthyite goal, this Democratic Party coalition of neocons, intelligence operatives, and NBC stars will deceive, smear, and even engage in outright journalistic deception, as NBC (once again) just proved with this report.

His stated goal is to discredit any and all efforts to out Russian interference in US political discourse. Given the well-documented impact of Kremlin interference on the 2016 race,3 especially on its coverage, this is an odd position to consistently advocate. Even more so when Wikileaks is eager to spread the same message.

Most Retweeted Comment From Wikileaks during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

A Note on US Counter-influence Strategy

Contrary to Greenwald’s assertions, there is no grand plan for counter-influence in the United States. Or among its democratic allies.

In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. A vast array of amateurs and professionals with diverse backgrounds are all working to devise alerts and defenses for deployment in the face of these threats. But this work has so far proceeded without any meaningful coordination. No organizing body holds it all together.4 No grand conspiracy drives its progress. The field lacks even widely-shared definitions for terms like “misinformation” and “influence campaign.”

Caroline Orr (February 3, Morning)

Shortly after the Greenwald and Wikileaks tweets, freelance analyst Caroline Orr took the opportunity to point out that the NBC News headline was thoroughly supported by review of the facts–quite independent of the credibility of New Knowledge.

Most Retweeted Comment From RVAWonk during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

Sarah Abdallah (February 3, Afternoon)

By afternoon, the most prolifically-retweeted mentioner of Tulsi Gabbard weighed in with an objection by quoting the Wikileaks tweet.  

Frequently Retweeted Comment From Sarah Abdallah during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

Note the tone of expectation shared by the concluding paragraphs of the Intercept story quoted above. The idea is that the Deep State will inevitably frame any and all threats to its hegemony as Russian interference; this is to be expected, it’s the playbook. 

Later the conversation turns back to the relevant aspects of Gabbard’s foreign policy. 

Most Retweeted Comment From Sarah Abdallah during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

Both tweets received heavy re-circulation, but the positive foreign policy framing was far more popular. And, setting aside the Russian troll narrative, this framing enjoys non-trivial support with the Democratic base. 

Greenwald Strikes Back (February 4, Morning)

By the following morning, Greenwald had apparently grown frustrated enough with the tweet from RVAWonk to thoroughly undermine his critique of “smearing” political opponents with unflattering, unrelated information. 

Moderately Retweeted Comment From Glenn Greenwald during the Week Ending on February 8, 2019

NBC News Responds 

The most thorough response to the Intercept piece comes from NBC News themselves in the form of a Twitter thread. I repeat it here for the record.

Wrapping Up

Tulsi Gabbard is genuine in her beliefs. I doubt they are influenced in any way by the preferences of the Kremlin. She has broad support among the ranks of the formerly enlisted. 

Likewise, the evidence is somewhat clear that Russian state actors, especially state news sources, are making early efforts to support her candidacy. A lucid and level-headed conversation about how to address this without interfering in her campaign or sacrificing our values of speech and openness is the least we owe the American people, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes some on the anti-establishment wings of either party.

Clusters, Lexicons and NLP … 

We will be discussing misinformation, psyops, and viral deception in more detail in future posts. These topics are central to much of our current work at Marvelous AI. But in the next few posts we will look more closely at language trends in the early tweets about top-tier candidates.

Update (Feb 13, 2019 4:15 PM): A New Development

Bill Browder had the most frequently retweeted tweet in our corpus today. Adding it to the story without comment.

  1. It should be noted that this story says nothing of Gabbard’s complicity. As reported, the interest is a one-way street, presumably motivated by coincidental alignment between Gabbard’s foreign policy and Russian state goals.
  2. The act is eponymous to Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured to death in Russian custody in 2009.
  3. See, for example, Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar.
  4. One good example of early organizing in this space is the Credibility Coalition Misinfosec Working Group, but there are undoubtedly others. Bringing together their various perspectives is the hardest part of this nascent field

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