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Russian Trolls Found Amplifying U.S. Republican Charge Against FBI

Donald Trump Jr. (left) and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (combo photo)

Russian trolls have helped create a big swell of support online for a move by U.S. Republicans to force the release of a classified document that they say provides evidence of bias against U.S. President Donald Trump at the Justice Department.

Researchers at the Alliance for Security Democracy project, which has been tracking a network of 600 Twitter accounts it says are controlled by the Kremlin, said late on January 19 that the trolls drove up use of the Twitter hashtag #releasethememo by 315,000 percent over 24 hours, greatly amplifying demands by Republicans for release of the highly classified congressional memo.

"I've never seen any single hashtag that has had this amount of activity behind it," said Bret Schafer, an analyst with the alliance's Hamilton 68 project.

The surge in online activity in support of the conservative Republican cause came as Twitter announced it has identified and shut down an additional 1,062 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg entity often described as a "troll farm" connected with the Kremlin. That brings the total to 3,814.

Twitter provided examples of tweets put out by the Russian accounts touting conservative causes, including tweets questioning the integrity of the FBI because of its failure to prosecute former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, over allegations pushed by Republicans.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy says the 600 Twitter feeds it monitors include accounts from Russian state-run media RT and Sputnik, as well as other accounts that are consistently pro-Russian and amplify Russian government themes.

The Russian accounts have joined a chorus calling for release of the classified memo led by Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, and other prominent Republicans.

WikiLeaks, which published leaked Democratic Party documents during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign that were allegedly hacked by Russian intelligence, on January 19 joined the outpouring of support emanating out of Russia for the Republican #releasethememo campaign, offering a reward of up to $1 million for anyone who gives it the memo.

It's difficult to prove any direct coordination between the Russian trolls, WikiLeaks, and the Republicans, Schafer said.

"My guess is this started organically," he said, noting that WikiLeaks was an early big promoter of #releasethememo, and it received attention late on January 18 from Trump Jr., and another conservative personality, Republican U.S. Representative Steve King.

It's possible that the Russian-affiliated accounts simply "hopped on it, promoted it, amplified it," taking their cues from the Republican leaders, Schafer said.

At issue in the campaign is a classified memo that legislators on the U.S. House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee say was commissioned by the committee's chairman, Representative Devin Nunes.

The committee's Democrats in a joint statement called the document "a misleading set of talking points attacking the FBI" and drawing from "highly classified" documents that they said the government will never agree to release.

The Democrats said Republican committee members made the memo available to all House members in preparation for a public release "for the political purpose of spreading a false narrative and undermining" the Justice Department's investigation into Russian ties with the Trump campaign.

"Not surprisingly, the GOP campaign to attack the FBI now has been joined by the same forces that made common cause during the Trump campaign. WikiLeaks, [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange, and a multitude of online Russian bots are now involved in promoting the effort," the Democratic statement said.

Republicans have said the memo shows the FBI and Justice Department are biased against the president and, along with U.S. intelligence agencies, improperly surveilled members of Trump's 2016 campaign.

U.S. intelligence officials have denied that they conducted any improper surveillance.

With reporting by AP and Reuters