Founded in 1972 by German Chancellor Willy Brandt as a permanent memorial to the Marshall Plan, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) has long been one of the Beltway’s most respected think tanks.
Yet in July, with the announcement that it was creating the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), which would seek “to work to publicly document and expose Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to subvert democracy in the United States and Europe” it became clear that GMF was abandoning the Ostpolitik that characterized Brandt’s foreign policy and instead embracing the Russia panic that dominates the current discourse in Washington.
The ASD, which according to a GMF spokesperson is “funded by a group of American private individuals and small family foundations,” is, in reality, an alliance between longtime Republican neocons and Democratic war hawks such as William Kristol, David Kramer, former CIA acting director Michael Morell, Hillary Clinton foreign-policy adviser Jake Sullivan and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
On Wednesday GMF announced the creation of a new project under the auspices of the ASD, Hamilton 68, taking its name from Federalist Paper 68, which expounds on the danger of foreign influence on American democracy.
According to a press release announcing the project:
Hamilton 68 will help journalists and ordinary people alike identify Russian messaging themes and detect active disinformation or attack campaigns at the start. This will reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s attempts to influence Americans’ thinking, and deter this activity in the future.
How will it achieve this goal? By tracking 600 Twitter accounts which are said to be furthering Russian influence in the United States.
The new project is designed “to shed light on Russian propaganda efforts on Twitter in near-real time” by highlighting “trending content from Twitter accounts for media outlets known to be controlled by the Russian government” as well as “themes being pushed by Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns.”
According to GMF, “The initial dashboard tracks 600 accounts that were 1) identified as participating in specific disinformation campaigns synchronized with Russia Today and Sputnik News, 2) meaningfully linked to users who self-identified as promoting pro-Russian viewpoints, and 3) bots that provide support to members of the first two categories.”
The specific criteria GMF uses when deeming an account “meaningfully linked” to Russian “disinformation campaigns” was left unstated. And GMF will not name the 600 accounts on its radar because, “We prefer to focus on the behavior of the overall network rather than get dragged into hundreds of individual debates over which troll fits which role.”
By following the activity of the 600 accounts, the GMF website is able to track the top and trending domains over a 48-hour period. So far, the site has listed mainstream news outlets like TheAtlantic.com and conservative sources like TheDailyCaller.com and FoxNews.com alongside Russian-funded outlets like RT.com and SputnikNews.com on its watch list.
The project’s timing is auspicious, given that Congress included $250 million for the purposes of countering Russian propaganda in the new sanctions bill aimed at Iran, Russia, and North Korea. Among other things, the new funding would seek to “build the capacity and resilience of civil society, media, and other nongovernmental organizations in countering the influence and propaganda of the Russian Federation in such countries.”
But there are a few problems with the new project, the first being that the tweets GMF highlights as “Russian propaganda” cannot be said to be propaganda by any meaningful measure of the term. Take, for example, the following five tweets that were featured on the Hamilton 68 website at 11:20 am EST Wednesday:
—RT (@RT_com) August 1, 2017
War crimes? Third of Brits want Tony Blair tried over Iraq invasion. https://t.co/sxO7z5hciY
—RT UK (@RTUKnews) August 2, 2017
—Sputnik (@SputnikInt) August 2, 2017
“There is a military option—to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” Lindsay Graham said https://t.co/pRF7dnVaM4
—RT America (@RT_America) August 1, 2017
—President of Russia (@KremlinRussia_E) August 2, 2017
While the sources of these stories have their obvious ties to the Kremlin, nothing featured in any of the above stories could be fairly construed as “fake news.”
So the question is: Why does GMF cite tweets linking to stories on police brutality and a widely bellicose pronouncement by Senator Lindsey Graham? The import of GMF’s project is clear: Reporting on anything that might put the United States in a bad light is now tantamount to spreading Russian propaganda.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be at all surprising. After all, the January 6 declassified intelligence report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s alleged campaign to influence the outcome of the election asserted that RT’s reporting on Occupy Wall Street and fracking helped tilt the election to Donald J. Trump.
Projects like Hamilton 68 are the opposite of what one would expect in an open society like the United States: In essence, it seeks to police and narrow the scope of acceptable political discourse. The implicit message is that Americans should ignore unpleasant news so long as it comes from foreign outlets, regardless of the veracity of the story.
That the well-regarded German Marshall Fund has succumbed to the Russophobia now so in vogue across the political spectrum is cause for both sadness and concern.