If you’ve paid any attention to mainstream coverage of Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Russians involved in running an online troll farm that opposed Hillary Clinton’s campaign, then you’re probably certain the answer is “yes.” There’s been no shortage of headlines declaring that the accused — typically referred to simply as “Russians” — “tried to help” or “aimed to help” the two left-wing candidates, or that they “appear to have been helped by Russian election interference.” Even the New York Times, the paper of record, declared that the company, Internet Research Agency, aimed to “bolster” Sanders and Stein’s candidacies.
You’ll find this same narrative on the nominally liberal MSNBC. Stein was grilled on MSNBC about the Russian attempt to “boost” her campaign. Meanwhile, Ari Melber, one of the network’s pundits, seemed to suggest there was something fishy going on between Sanders and the Russian trolls with an innuendo-laden question to Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
“It says in here that Donald Trump was the main intended beneficiary, and Bernie Sanders was the other major party candidate who was a beneficiary,” said Melber. “Neither of them have clearly stood up today and said: ‘I don’t want that help from the Russians, please don’t do that kind of thing for me, and anything that happened, I disclaim.’”
It all sounds pretty damning. Until you read the actual indictment.
Fast and Loose
The sole reference to Stein in the nearly 10,000-word document is a sentence that mentions one single Instagram post from Blacktivist, an account controlled by the company, saying: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”
Sanders, meanwhile, appears twice. The first mention is when the document states the company’s work was “primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton … and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.” The second is a few lines down, when it provides an example of this support: an outline of themes for future content that was circulated around the company, urging employees to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).” The indictment doesn’t specify anything else, including any examples of material support for Sanders’s campaign.
These scant references comprise the sole basis for headline after headline about the Kremlin-backed trolls working for Sanders and Stein’s campaigns. Some Clinton backers such as Joy-Ann Reid uncritically spread the narrative that “Russia was helping Jill Stein and Sanders,” while others used it as a launching pad to suggest Sanders was knowingly in cahoots with the Russian efforts.
MSNBC’s Melber has been particularly dogged in pushing this narrative. Despite the lack of evidence in the indictment, Melber claimed on his show that “Mueller has shown that [the Russians] spent 2016 pushing another campaign to elect Bernie Sanders.”
When Sanders, appearing on Meet the Press, said that the trolls only began flooding pro-Sanders Facebook pages with anti-Clinton content after she had already won the nomination — a claim backed up by previous reporting — Melber pushed back.
“That may be how Sanders remembers it,” said Melber. “But now we know it began much earlier with those February marching orders, and the very next month a Sanders volunteer, John Mattes, says a ‘huge wave of fake news stories’ slamming Clinton from abroad targeted Sanders supporters.”
For one, the words were never uttered by Mattes, a Sanders campaign volunteer in California and investigative journalist who played a role in bringing the Iran-Contra scandal to light in the 1980s. Rather, the phrase was used by the Guardian article’s author, Julian Borger. Secondly, at no point is it stated that this “wave” was targeting Sanders supporters. In fact, reading the whole passage it’s clear that neither Borger nor Mattes was saying that the “wave” had anything to do with Sanders at all. Here is the passage in full:
A huge wave of fake news stories originating from eastern Europe began washing over the presidential election months earlier, at the height of the primary campaign. John Mattes, who was helping run the outline campaign for the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders from San Diego, said it really took off in March 2016.
“In a 30-day period, dozens of full-blown sites appeared overnight, running full level productions posts. It screamed out to me that something strange was going on,” Mattes said. Much of the material was untraceable, but he tracked 40 percent of the new postings back to eastern Europe.
In fact, publicly available interviews with Mattes make this clear, such as this NBC 7 interview in which Mattes explains what led him to look into the troll activity in the first place.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people were joining Bernie Sanders pages on Facebook for a campaign that was over. It made no sense,” he told the network.
I spoke to Mattes, who confirmed as much.
“I did not do that, at all,” he said about the claim that he looked into troll activity on pro-Sanders pages during the primaries. “Anybody who says that I knew what was happening in March 2016 is misconstruing what I’ve said publicly.”
Mattes, who says he was never consulted by MSNBC about Melber’s use of his quote, adds that he has “not seen any reporting that there was material assistance that would have helped” Sanders during the primaries. While he does say that he found Sanders page administrators around the country complaining about fake news sites being posted on their pages, that was in May, and was largely haphazard. The trolls didn’t appear to target California, for instance, even though it was clear by at least mid-May that the state was the Sanders’s campaign’s last hope.
“Had there been an outrageous blasting of Hillary Clinton on our Facebook pages in the outrageous manner that occurred after the convention, I would’ve noticed it,” says Mattes. “If the Russians had really wanted to help Bernie, our last stand was in California, and I didn’t see it.”
As of the time of writing, Melber’s segment is still available for viewing online on the MSNBC website, even though Mattes says he contacted MSNBC to register his objections regarding the misquote. I reached out to Melber and MSNBC and asked them if they plan on issuing a public retraction. This story will be updated with their response.
It appears, then, that the widespread claim that “the Russians” were helping Sanders’s campaign, and did so during the primaries, is fake news — much like the kind that those advancing this narrative accuse the Kremlin of spreading to subvert American democracy.
What appears to have happened here is a marked collapse of basic journalistic standards. Various news outlets and pundits have created a narrative about Russian material support for left-wing presidential candidates based on precisely three references in a thirty-seven-page document that don’t actually provide evidence of such a thing. Ari Melber, meanwhile, misattributed and misrepresented a quote from a year-old article and never bothered to speak to the individual he was supposedly quoting — all for the purposes of quickly and falsely debunking Sanders’s defense of his campaign.
A less charitable interpretation is that the media — unfriendly towards Sanders, uncritical of the national security establishment, and predisposed to run sensational stories about Russian interference — ran headfirst into a story that seemed to be an ideal blend of these two trends, facts be damned.
The widespread adoption of this narrative as a cudgel wielded against prominent left-wing political figures, often by liberals, shows the danger of the current political climate, in which liberal anchors openly speculate whether their political opponents are foreign agents. The moment such accusations are turned leftward is never far away.
Look at what’s happening in the Mexican presidential race. The current front-runner is a left-wing, anti-Trump populist running on a platform promising to renegotiate NAFTA, establish a universal pension, pump billions into infrastructure spending, and undo the current president’s privatization of gas and oil fields. One Bloomberg op-ed charged he would be an ideal beneficiary of a Putin-backed disinformation campaign. Another, this time at the Washington Post, asserted that Putin “may” be working to help him, an unsupported charge repeated by one of his opponent’s aides in January.
Those hostile to left-wing causes have also made use of the accusation of Russia meddling. Texas Republican Lamar Smith, a man saturated with the fumes of fossil fuel industry money, has accused anti-fracking environmental groups and Facebook ads of being funded by the Kremlin. Others have also hyped up the work of Russian troll farms in promoting black activism and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It brings to mind the intelligence assessment released by the Directorate of National Intelligence last January, which, in lieu of detailing evidence for the Russian hacking of the DNC, instead cited Russia Today’s coverage of US wealth inequality, police brutality, mass surveillance, corruption, fracking, and more as examples of Russian propaganda.
And in the future, such attacks can easily be turned on the liberals now weaponizing Russiagate. What would happen if and when a Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign appeared to come to the aid of the Democrats in a future election? It’s not so far-fetched: the legal analysis website Law & Crime recently reported that the pundit most retweeted by the trolls indicted by Robert Mueller was MSNBC’s very own Joy-Ann Reid, who received around ten times more retweets than Sanders from the same trolls. It remains to be seen if news outlets will claim that Reid was being “helped” by the Russian disinformation campaign, or if Ari Melber will ask for her to renounce their aid.
Liberals should be wary of continuing to use Russiagate for partisan purposes, and of abandoning reporting standards to punish their ideological challengers, whether consciously or not. Weapons, after all, have a way of getting into other people’s hands.