What took down Al Franken? Sexual harassment

Jacquelyn Martin | AP

It seems undeniable now that Russia manipulated American popular opinion to shape the election of 2016 and divide the country, even if high-ranking elected officials won’t acknowledge that fact because it might lend an air of illegitimacy to their own election.

There’s no reason for the Russians to stop now; they’ve figured out Americans, who too often only see what they want to see and won’t question where the information came from nor what they’re told.

There was a little bit of that in the last 24 hours from supporters of former Minnesota DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who, for unexplained reasons, seem to think the senator was vindicated against sexual harassment claims against him because of a Newsweek article, which revealed the extent to which bots amplified the allegations.

On December 7, a day after Democrats started calling for Franken to step down, the freshly minted Japan-based fake sites went to work and re-published an article by Ijeoma Oluo, a liberal writer, urging women and activists to stop supporting Franken.

Oluo had posted the opinion piece, titled “Dear Al Franken, I’ll Miss You but You Can’t Matter Anymore,” on a much smaller website, with a reach of 10,000 followers.

Suddenly, thousands of apparently fake Twitter accounts were tweeting the title of the article—but linking back to one of the two Japanese-registered fake-news sites created in conjunction with the right-wing anti-Franken campaign.

The bot accounts normally tweeted about celebrities, bitcoin and sports, but on that day, they were mobilized against Franken. Researchers have found that each bot account had 30 to 60 followers, all Japanese. The first follower for each account was either Japanese or Russian.

“We began to suspect that this legitimate opinion piece [by Oluo] 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 in Medium. “Strong similarities between the accounts combined with clear connection to the two recently-established Japanese websites verified our suspicions.”

Soon, Farb and company realized they had “stumbled upon a sophisticated botnet being used to spread alt-right propaganda.”

Alt-right propaganda? From a liberal writer? Neat trick.

“Agreed we need one,” Democratic digital media strategist Jess McIntosh, who worked on Franken’s campaign, told Newsweek when asked about the right’s utilization of “darker online strategies” (bots). “But it’s harder to use these tactics when you can’t rely on either lies OR hate to do it.”

Oh, please.

Let’s cycle back to the very underpinning of the Newsweek story — Ijeoma Oluo’s article, which was neither a lie, nor a right-wing treatise.

When I was sexually abused, nobody believed me, because they preferred to believe that I was a liar than to believe a man was an abuser. When I was sexually harassed, people believed me, but they preferred to see me suffer in silence than to hold a man accountable.

My humanity would need to wait for a more convenient time. So often women are told that when you look at the big picture, their humanity is just too inconvenient. When Donald Trump, a man with multiple sexual assault accusations against him — a man who admitted on tape to assaulting women — was elected president, tens of millions of Americans decided that the humanity of all of the women of America would have to wait until their guy wasn’t running for office.

And now Al, many in my own party are trying to convince me that the humanity of your victims needs to wait until a more convenient time. It needs to wait until we get the Senate back. It needs to wait until Trump is impeached. It needs to wait until Roy Moore is defeated. There will always be a reason to wait until a better time to do the right thing. And right now, many would have you be another reason why we wait.

You would be another reason why Democrats don’t live their values. You would be another reason why we harbor abusers. And I would have never wanted that for you, but more importantly I do not want that for your victims.

There was nothing in the Newsweek article to suggest that this isn’t how she felt. There was nothing in the Newsweek article that the claims of sexual harassment against Franken were fabricated.

So why are people — DFLers mostly — pointing to the article and saying, “see, Franken was railroaded”?

Why? Because that’s what they want to see, and Newsweek flipped the version of events, suggesting that Franken’s resignation came after Oluo’s article and after the bots — presumably Russians — had amplified it.

Newsweek never called Oluo. If they had, she would have pointed out that the timeline is incorrect; Her article was printed after the reports that Franken was to resign.

“In no way did my article have anything to do with it,” she tells Snopes. “The timeline makes no sense. The article didn’t even go up until he announced he would resign. I was hoping that the piece would give people context and help people grow from all of this into a better place.”

It didn’t, of course. The Franken affair, as well as the Garrison Keillor story, have proven that liberals, like their conservative counterparts, are every bit as capable of looking the other way on sexual harassment if it’s their guy doing the deed.

It is true that far-right Internet trolls tried to exploit the #MeToo movement to take out political opponents, Snopes said. “But this was not an unfounded character assassination; [Leeann] Tweeden had a photograph showing Franken smiling and appearing to grope her chest over a flak jacket as she slept.”

The Newsweek article is racing around the internet at breakneck speed now. The Snopes story? Not so much.

We are a manipulative citizenry, a problem we can fix any time we want to.

Related: Russian bots pounced in hours after Parkland massacre (Boston Globe)