Was Al Franken the victim of a Twitter bot conspiracy?

Newsweek thinks Al Franken, seen on the day he resigned from the U.S. Senate, was chased from office by a bot-based conspiracy.

Newsweek thinks Al Franken, seen on the day he resigned from the U.S. Senate, was chased from office by a bot-based conspiracy. Associated Press

Monday morning, Newsweek broke a jaw dropping story detailing a salacious conspiracy to oust then-U.S. Sen. Al Franken from office.

According to the story, Franken's political downfall was orchestrated by Roger Stone, right-wing websites, an army of Twitter bots, and the Japanese.

The allegations transmitted by Newsweek are as follows:

1. Republican operative Roger Stone is quoted on Twitter -- it wasn’t actually him tweeting, though that apparently doesn’t matter -- saying Al Franken’s “time in the barrel is about to come.” Just hours later, Leeann Tweeden comes forward with her allegations of the Democratic senator's misconduct. The alt-right troops rally to strike.

2. After Tweeden’s story is made public, the alt-right descends into the Twittersphere to propagate the news that Al Franken is a groping predator.

3. Two websites registered in Japan republish an op-ed calling for Franken to resign, Twitter bots retweet it, and… something something collusion?

Based on these facts alone, evidence that a vast web of operatives and bots coordinated Franken’s demise seems a little thin. It grows more suspect the closer you look. It appears Newseek's story constitutes little more than a summary of a February 9 blog post, which is itself a slightly expanded rehash of a November19 blog post by an anonymous author.

The “research” Newsweek cites as revealing this conspiracy comes from Unhack the Vote, an internet outfit that, according to its website, “conducts private research on matters related to voting, constitutional rights, and national security.” In fact, Unhack the Vote peddles intricately wound conspiracy theories like how the 2016 election was stolen by the Russians -- not by spreading fake news, but by hacking directly into voter registration data.

The mastermind behind all this goes by the internet name Mike Farb, who's also the author of the Medium blog post that Newsweek repackaged as their story. 

His blog post cherry picks innocuous details into a deliciously conspiratorial yarn.

“Strong similarities between the accounts combined with clear connection to the two recently-established Japanese websites verified our suspicions,” Farb wrote, detailing how he “stumbled upon a sophisticated botnet being used to spread alt-right propaganda.”

Some of the other gems in Farb’s Medium post history should raise some eyebrows as well. There’s this shocking take about how it was literally impossible for Trump to have won Pennsylvania because... math. And here’s a poem (yes, a poem) about how Russians hacked into voting machines to steal the election for Trump.

City Pages reached out to Mr. Farb via his Twitter account, also the official Unhack the Vote account, asking if he could detail his methodology. “Of course,” replied the enigmatic Farb, who then stopped responding after he was asked for a phone number where he could be reached.

To say that Newsweek published a sketchy, unverified, one-source story would be selling them short though. They had the good sense to shoehorn in an emailed response from a Democratic media strategist at the end.

The story was temporarily picked up by the left-wing news site Raw Story, before that follow-up was pulled, with Raw Story citing “several issues” with the report. They didn’t pull it early enough to stop executive ethics guru Richard Painter from sharing the story on Twitter.

Later Monday, the internet sleuths at Snopes investigated Newsweek's report, and found it largely unconvincing. One of the stories purportedly spread by Twitter bots trying to pressure Franken from office was published December 7 -- after Franken had announced he would resign "in the coming weeks." 

The timeline presented in the original Newsweek story "makes no sense," author Ijeoma Oluo told Snopes, adding that neither Mike Farb nor Newsweek reached out to her to figure out if she was a player in a global conspiracy, or just a feminist with good timing.

As Oluo told Snopes:

"Basically one dude wrote a Medium article and they turned that into a whole piece in Newsweek with no verification. It really undermines the MeToo movement and makes it seem like all these brave women who talked about the abuse they suffered are just tools. These are actual women who risked a lot and took a lot of abuse to come forward."