Anatomy of a Fake News ScandalInside the web of conspiracy theorists, Russian operatives, Trump campaigners and Twitter bots who manufactured the 'news' that Hillary Clinton ran a pizza-restaurant child-sex ring
By Amanda RobbCarmen Kat'z Facebook post likely set Pizzagate in motion. "Someone or some group possibly took this unwitting woman and made her the source that they need." says Watts.
What's nearly impossible to tell is who ran @DavidGoldbergNY. The handle is not among the 2,752 Twitter accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a disinformation shop run by the Kremlin, which the House Intelligence Committee released in November. And Twitter has yet to make public the handles of an additional 36,746 bot accounts its attorney Sean Edgett told Congress have "characteristics we used to associate an account with Russia." In any case, Russia is not the only one playing this game. "We've also had sources tell us that using bot networks has become a common practice among U.S. political campaigns," says Woolley, a practice that is difficult to trace. "They do it with subcontractors," he explains. "And the Federal Election Commission doesn't require reporting for subcontractors." One thing that does stand out, he adds, is "the more sophisticated bot nets, the ones that are successful at spreading stories, are built by people with a lot of resources. In our experience, across multiple different countries, the people that have deep pockets are the powerful political actors."
According to a sample of tweets with Pizzagate or related hashtags provided by Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, Pizzagate was shared roughly 1.4 million times by more than a quarter of a million accounts in its first five weeks of life – from @DavidGoldbergNY's tweet to the day Welch showed up at Comet Ping Pong. The vast majority of tweeters in our sample, just 10 percent of all possible hits, posted about the story only a few times. But more than 3,000 accounts in our set tweeted about Pizzagate five times or more. Among these were dozens of users who tweet so frequently – up to 900 times a day – that experts believe they were likely highly automated. Even more striking: 22 percent of the tweets in our sample were later deleted by the user. This could be a sign, Woolley says, of "someone sweeping away everything so that we can't follow the trail."
Next, we decided to cross-reference the most frequent Pizzagate tweeters with a list of 139 handles associated with Trump campaign staffers, advisers and surrogates. We also ran our entire sample against the list of accounts linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency. We found that at least 14 Russia-linked accounts had tweeted about Pizzagate, including @Pamela_Moore13, whose avatar is, aptly, an anonymous figure wrapped in an American flag; that account has been retweeted by such prominent Trump supporters as Donald Trump Jr., Ann Coulter and Roger Stone, the political operative who recommended Paul Manafort as Trump's campaign manager. (Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently indicted Manafort for money laundering as part of his investigation into possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the presidential race.) "Well! Well! Well!" "Pamela Moore" tweeted on November 19th, 2016, above the fake news headline "FBI: Rumors About Clinton Pedophile Ring Are True."
The campaign's engagement went far deeper. We found at least 66 Trump campaign figures who followed one or more of the most prolific Pizzagate tweeters. Michael Caputo, a Trump adviser who tweeted frequently about Clinton's e-mails, followed 146 of these accounts; Corey Stewart, Trump's campaign chair in Virginia, who lost a tight primary race for governor in June, followed 115; Paula White-Cain, Trump's spiritual adviser, followed 71; Pastor Darrell Scott, a prominent member of Trump's National Diversity Coalition, followed 33. Flynn's son, Michael Flynn Jr., who followed 58 of these accounts, famously took the bait and was ousted from the Trump transition team in early December after tweeting, "Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story."
Many of the Pizzagate tweeters had the characteristics of political bots – Twitter handles made up of random or semi-random letters and numbers and twin passions for conservative politics and pets (puppies and kitties win audience, Watts says). Others were all too human. Crystal Kemp, a 50-year-old grandmother who lives in Confluence, Pennsylvania, tweeted about the story more than 4,000 times in five weeks. I reached out to her via Facebook to ask why. "Didn't want Hillary to win at any cost," Kemp tells me, "but liked Trump from day one. I don't really know that much about the Pizzagate thing. Everything I tweeted or retweeted was stuff that I found through my own research or from another follower."Alex Jones' InfoWars covered Pizzagate before and after the election. "Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children," the host told his audience.