A group of fake news sites, white nationalists and far-right fake Twitter accounts were reportedly behind the campaign against Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), and Democrats fell for it.
According a report from Unhack the Vote, while everyone was focused on the Russian meddling of the 2016 election, another campaign was being run out of Japan. Leeann Tweeden’s initial allegation against Franken was quickly turned into propaganda after being hinted at by Trump ally Roger Stone.
A group of Japan-based sites were created the day before Tweeden came forward with her allegations and several Twitter bots ensured the stories about it went viral. The news was then picked up and fueled by Mike Cernovich and his fans, who issued thousands of tweets causing “FrankenFondels and “Franken is a groper” to gain traction. Meanwhile, eight former female staffers of Franken’s defended their old boss, but their voices were completely drowned out.
Beginning Nov. 15, Stone used one of his accounts that hasn’t been banned by Twitter to spread his message.
“Roger Stone says it’s Al Franken’s ‘time in the barrel.’ Franken next in long list of Democrats accused of ‘grabby’ behavior,” the account tweeted.
That day, RealUSA.site was created by a Japanese developer named Atsufumi Otsuka. A fake news site was grown and a second site popped up a few days later.
weeden’s story was promoted within hours by right wing media from Infowars and Breitbart to The Hill and KABC-LA, where Tweeden’s radio show is broadcast.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy explained that Russia Intelligence operations then ensured “Al Franken” was trending by Nov. 17 using a group of 600 fake accounts.
Right-wing troll Charles Johnson tweeted, “Thinking of offering money to people who go on tv and say Al Frank is a predator,” just days later. Cernovich wasn’t far behind.
I will fully cover the legal expenses of any VICTIM of a Congressman who wants to come forward to tell her story. Break the secrecy. #UnsealTheDeals
— Mike Cernovich 🇺🇸 (@Cernovich) November 21, 2017
While Johnson was tweeting out his message, Otsuka was starting another domain in Japan and building the second fake news site. The Google analytics account ID And Apple app ID both match name servers and registration for the sites, according to researchers.
Just days prior to Democrats calling for Franken to step down, the fake news sites republished a article from a smaller site by Ijeoma Oluo, urging women and activists to stop their defenses from Franken. “Dear Al Franken, I’ll Miss You But You Can’t Matter Anymore,” was its title. Thousands of fake Twitter accounts then ensured the article spread.
From there, Senate Democrats, lead by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) went on the attack and demanded Franken resign.
“We began to suspect that this legitimate opinion piece [by Iluo] had been weaponized for political gain by dozens of twitter accounts, all of them repeatedly tweeting links to the two domains registered in Japan in late November,” Unhack the Vote’s Mike Farb wrote. “Strong similarities between the accounts combined with clear connection to the two recently-established Japanese websites verified our suspicions.”
He discovered that they had “stumbled upon a sophisticated botnet being used to spread alt-right propaganda.” That botnet is still active today, though they’re not talking about any political propaganda. More than 400 accounts exist in the group, continuing to promote propaganda and ready to go on the attack again at any moment.
“We know this because Twitter has suspended some spam accounts that follow our Voty bots,” Farb told Newsweek in an interview. “This shows that Twitter is aware that these ‘follower’ accounts are not legitimate. But if you look at the ‘who to follow’ suggestion window when you are on a Voty botnet account, the suggestions are almost always other Voty Twitter bot accounts. This shows that Twitter is aware that these accounts are interrelated.”
It’s unclear who’s paying for the campaign, but whoever it was successfully manipulated Democrats and scored the resignation from Franken.
“We estimate dozens of hours of initial development time and at least one person working full time to produce and distribute content,” another researcher told Newsweek. “Additionally it’s likely that an existing bot farm of compromised computers is basically being rented as a distributed host for these accounts.”
No coordinated network of bots exists on the left that is funded by Democratic donors.