There is more to the story of Senator Al Franken’s precipitous fall from grace than meets the eye. A combination of American white nationalists, Japan-based websites, and Japanese and Russian Twitter bots reportedly stoked hostility toward Franken after radio commentator Leeann Tweeden accused him of sexual misconduct in November 2017.
The alt-right’s contributions
It was white nationalist and Trump ally Roger Stone who was first on the scene. Stone hinted that he had knowledge of Tweeden’s story on November 15, tweeting “it’s now Al Franken’s time in the barrel.”
Hours later Tweeden herself shared the story and infamous picture of Franken’s inappropriate gesture during a 2006 USO tour.
Notorious right-wing provocateur Charles C. Johnson picked up the story on November 20, tweeting, “Thinking of offering money to people who go on TV saying Al Frank [sic] is a predator.”
A day later white nationalist Mike Cernovich and his fans sent thousands of tweets causing “FrankenFondels” and “Franken is a groper” to begin trending.
At the same time as the right-wing troll army was positioning itself to do battle, eight former female staffers of Franken’s attempted to defend the senator, but their voices were drowned out.
Two fake-news websites in Japan
Also around this time, in Japan, a developer named Atsufumi Otsuka registered two web domain called RealUSA.site and votyus.me. The sites were styled as pseudo-news outlets, according to research shared with the voting rights outfit Unhack the Vote, and they were used by Twitter bots, with mostly Japanese followers, to link to stories meant to discredit Franken. One such story was Dear Al Franken: I’ll Miss You, But You Can’t Matter Anymore published by a site with a small following called theestablishment.co, and written by blogger Ijeoma Oluo.
As Mike Farb of Unhack the Vote writes, “We began to suspect that this legitimate opinion piece published by theestablishment.co 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.”
Don’t forget Russian bots
Russian bots also began to seize on the Franken story. The Alliance for Securing Democracy noted that Russia intelligence operations had used a group of 600 fake accounts to ensure that “Al Franken” was trending by Nov. 17.
It is unclear how the campaign was financed, but the operatives did succeed in manipulating many Democrats and ultimately in achieving the resignation of Franken.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand led the call for his resignation on December 6, 2017, wanting him to send a clear message that any mistreatment of women is intolerable. Franken announced his resignation the next day.
No left-wing network of Twitter bots exists to counter the machinations of the right-wing and the threats posed by international bots. Part of the problem is that it’s harder to get thoughtful, investigative journalism trending than it is to achieve prominence online for salacious and predatory attacks. Expect it to happen again.