On a day like Friday, with a shutdown looming and DACA in the balance and Chuck Schumer huddling with President Trump in the White House, you might logically expect right-wing Twitter to be blowing up – but not, necessarily, with the seemingly unaccountable hashtag that’s dominated the platform since Thursday evening: #ReleaseTheMemo. But then again, you might not logically expect American conservatives to work in concert with Russian state propagandists and Twitter bots – though by now, God knows, nobody should be surprised.
The “memo” in question is a confidential four-page document assembled by a stealthy group of House Republicans, led by Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, over the past month. These members, as part of the G.O.P. effort to discredit Robert Mueller and demolish his investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian collusion, undertook to “probe” whether the FBI and Justice Department misused the infamous dossier compiled by British intelligence expert Christopher Steele. Surprisingly enough, they seem to have found what they set out to find – judging, at least, from the dark and hysterical hints about the contents of the memo that right-wingers in Congress began to issue last evening.
Mark Meadows, chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, declared himself “shocked” to the core by his fellow Republicans’ findings, and demanded they be released “so that all Americans can judge for themselves,” adding, “Part of me wishes that I didn’t read it because I don’t want to believe that those kinds of things could be happening in this country that I call home and love so much.” Releasing a four-page partisan memo is the last, best hope to “preserve our democracy,” according to Rep. Matt Gaetz, another Freedom Caucus member. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican, was among those who dashed to the House floor to sputter: “The American people deserve, they must, they want to know what’s in this document. Release the memo! Release the memo and all of the related documented sourced in the memo.”
On Thursday night’s Hannity, the host led the show by calling the memo’s findings – whatever they might be – “worse than Watergate,” borrowing from the ultra-reliable Rep. Steve King. How so? “What we’re talking about tonight is the systematic abuse of power, the weaponizing of those powerful tools of intelligence and the shredding of our Fourth Amendment constitutional rights,” Hannity declared. Details, of course, were not forthcoming. But Hannity knows what he knows – and, rest assured, it’s more than enough to justify putting a swift end to Mueller’s Trump “witch hunt.” Don, Jr. signaled this morning that he’d gotten the message loud and clear:
The democrats are lucky Republicans are honorable people. If we played the game like they do the memo would be all over CNN and everywhere else by now. Maybe it’s time we stoop to their level? #releasethememo
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 19, 2018
So what’s in this “bombshell report,” as it was soon being called almost universally? According to Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, “a profoundly misleading set of talking points drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI and its handling of the investigation,” which references “classified materials that most of the Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they have never read.” One of those talking points, it appears, involves an accusation reported by Politico that one Trump foreign-policy aide was “inappropriately” surveilled during the campaign, in a misuse of FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).
If that doesn’t sound quite like the advertised “bombshell,” you aren’t exercising your imagination – or your Twitter account – nearly enough. Nunes’ talking points, right-wing Twitter trolls have been declaring, means nothing less than the destruction of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy and the unraveling of the real conspiracy to steal the 2016 election for the Democrats. “Obama, Comey, McCabe, Hillary, Rosenstein, Strzok, Page, Huma, and Susan Rice need to go to prison for illegally spying on Donald Trump!” tweets Red Nation Rising. The indisputable bases for all of their convictions is, of course, in that four-page memo – hiding from the American people, practically in plain sight! (Of course, Trump or House Republicans could easily make the memo public – even some progressives are beginning to call for #release, certain that the memo can’t be that damning.)
What’s remarkable about this meme isn’t the fact that it’s being spread far and wide – it’s how much it’s dominated Twitter these last two days, with so many other banner headlines in the news. The Hamilton 68 Dashboard, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States which tracks more than 500 Russia-influenced Twitter accounts to gauge the reach of disinformation campaigns, shows a massive surge behind the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag in the last 48 hours, led by the usual mix of right-wing platforms like Breitbart, Fox News, and The Gateway Pundit – along with Russian bots and state media outlets like Tass, RT, and Sputnik.
It’s hardly unprecedented, in these Trump times, for right-wing sites to be amplifying messages from Russian propagandists, or for members of Congress to chime in. But “the degree to which they’re promoting this hashtag is significant,” says Jonathon Morgan, one of the creators of the “disinformation dashboard.” Morgan, CEO of Austin-based New Knowledge, which tracks disinformation campaigns in social media, can’t recall anything quite like this: Whereas the periodic explosions of Russian-Republican memes – especially when they’re designed to undercut the Trump-Russia probe – occasionally reach 400 uses of the hashtag per day, “we’re measuring more than 3,000” uses of #ReleaseTheMemo since Thursday. That’s not a meme; it’s an avalanche.
Morgan speculates that the sudden explosion of #ReleaseTheMemo partly stems from “the way these websites, like Breitbart, are positioning the story to place Obama in a bad light,” along with the way the meme is being framed as “manufactured justification for ending the Mueller investigation.” (Rumor also has it that the memo will somehow be “the final nail in the coffin” for the Clintons.)
The #ReleaseTheMemo craze is not just wishful right-wing thinking. It’s not simply your run-of-the-mill right-wing plot to distract Trump voters from Stormy Daniels, “shitholes,” and the shutdown. It’s one more piece of powerful evidence of how Russia and its Twitter bots are teaming with right-wing Republicans in a concerted pro-Trump propaganda campaign. The actual memo, as soon as its contents are leaked or revealed in full, is bound to disappoint those screaming for its release – and sure to raise red flags about the sources and methods of the House Republican staffers who put it together. But that won’t stop the next Russian-Republican propaganda shitstorm from taking over social media; in fact, it guarantees exactly the opposite. The American right is doing the work of Russian bots. Which, come to think of it, might just be something that needs investigating.