Newsweek Retracts Story on Al Franken Twitter Bot Conspiracy Theory

It’s been a rough news week for Newsweek

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Newsweek has retracted an article that said Twitter bots helped drive calls for Sen. Al Franken’s resignation late last year. A writer drawn into the theory told TheWrap it made no sense, timing-wise.

Let’s back up, first by acknowledging that it hasn’t been a great news week for Newsweek: On Tuesday, the site’s editors published a blistering note saying two editors and a reporter had been fired for investigating the company’s own business dealings.

The issues with the Franken conspiracy theory predate that drama. On Monday, a Newsweek article titled “How an Alt-Right Bot Network Took Down Al Franken,” said that “new research” showed that “white nationalist provocateurs, a pair of fake news sites, an army of Twitter bots and other cyber tricks helped derail Democratic Senator Al Franken last year.”

The “research” Newsweek was referencing is unclear, but the story cited a Medium blog post by Mike Farb, a writer and activist for the group Unhack the Vote. Newsweek wrote Wednesday morning:

The initial report was based on research conducted by Unhack The Vote, a group examining outside influence in U.S. elections and politics. It alleged that a “decidedly alt-right” botnet “weaponized” anti-Franken stories and amplified pressure on Franken to resign after allegations of sexual misconduct. Newsweek was unable to independently verify their claims after a further review of their work.

The story said one of the “weaponized” stories was by “liberal writer” Ijeoma Oluo. Her piece, published on a website called The Establishment, detailed her conflicted emotions about watching someone she once looked up to fall from grace.

Farb said bots tweeted out Oluo’s headline repeatedly to make it seem like there were more calls for Franken’s resignation than there actually were.

The person or people behind the bots is unclear, but Farb guessed that it was a far-right group that wanted to force Franken from the Senate. (A quick timeline reminder: several senators on Dec. 6 called for Franken’s resignation, and on Dec. 7 he announced he would resign. He officially resigned on Jan. 2).

And now, Oluo’s simple explanation for why her article didn’t help drive Franken’s resignation. Ready?

She published it after Franken said he would resign.

She pointed out on Twitter after Newsweek’s article was published on Monday that her article posted after she heard Franken’s resignation announcement.

There’s no way my piece could have been used to influence him when it didn’t even come out until after he had already resigned,” she told TheWrap on Monday. 

The Farb blog and the Newsweek article point out that the bots linked not to Oluo’s article, but to the domains registered in Japan. Farb’s blog cites “an anonymous security researcher” who discovered the bots using Oluo’s article.

Newsweek and Farb did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s requests for comment.

Oluo told TheWrap earlier this week, prior to the retraction, that she hoped Newsweek would issue one.

I need people to understand what an insult that entire thing is to the risk that the victims took to come forward and continue to take to come forward to talk about sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” Oluo said, adding that she feels the Newsweek and Raw Story articles that trended on on Monday were using victims’ stories as a political tool. 

It’s being used to try and discredit #MeToo and all these brave people that are coming forward,” she said. “And that, to me, I think is the biggest threat of this entire thing and where I take really, really huge offense.”

Oluo said that she first heard the theory about Twitter bots and her article “months ago,” but ignored it because it didn’t make sense to her.

If it had just been some fringe site, I would have just let it go just like I had initially,” she said. “I just want people to get back to talking about what we can do to make women more safe in our society.”