Last week the Washington Post ran a rather lurid story claiming to trace the influence of Russian propaganda on the US election (full disclosure, I think the theory is bullsh** but some people really need a hobby). it was headlined Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.
The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.
Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.
If you can’t see the irony in that second paragraph, you probably shouldn’t be reporting on fake news. Be that as it may, the “researchers” are nothing if not magnanimous.
Some players in this online echo chamber were knowingly part of the propaganda campaign, the researchers concluded, while others were “useful idiots” — a term born of the Cold War to describe people or institutions that unknowingly assisted Soviet Union propaganda efforts.
There are two parts to the story. Even if we concede that fake news circulated during this campaign, and it does during all campaigns, the real issue is whether a) anyone believed and, more importantly b) if anyone changed their vote based on these articles.
Glenn Greenwald, writing in The Intercept, points out that what the Post doesn’t do is identify who the experts are or anything about their methodology. There are two organizations mentioned: a think tank called the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a heretofore unheard of group called PropOrNot. We know the former is a “neo-conservative” think tank that is hostile to Russia, NTTAWWT. In fact, I could be accused of the same. The second group, which provides the background for the article, is completely anonymous. We don’t know the names of the analysts, the management, or where the funding comes from:
In casting the group behind this website as “experts,” the Post described PropOrNot simply as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.” Not one individual at the organization is named. The executive director is quoted, but only on the condition of anonymity, which the Post said it was providing the group “to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.”
The credentials of this supposed group of experts are impossible to verify, as none is provided either by the Post or by the group itself. The Intercept contacted PropOrNot and asked numerous questions about its team, but received only this reply: “We’re getting a lot of requests for comment and can get back to you today =) [smiley face emoticon].” The group added: “We’re over 30 people, organized into teams, and we cannot confirm or deny anyone’s involvement.”
Thus far, they have provided no additional information beyond that. As Fortune’s Matthew Ingram wrote in criticizing the Post article, PropOrNot’s Twitter account “has only existed since August of this year. And an article announcing the launch of the group on its website is dated last month.” WHOIS information for the domain name is not available, as the website uses private registration.
More troubling still, PropOrNot listed numerous organizations on its website as “allied” with it, yet many of these claimed “allies” told The Intercept, and complained on social media, they have nothing to do with the group and had never even heard of it before the Post published its story.
TO HYPE ITS story, the Post article uncritically highlights PropOrNot’s flamboyant claim that stories planted or promoted by Russia’s “disinformation campaign” were viewed more than 213 million times. Yet no methodology is provided for any of this: how a website is determined to merit blacklist designation or how this reach was calculated. As Ingram wrote: “How is that audience measured? We don’t know. Stories promoted by this network were shared 213 million times, it says. How do we know this? That’s unclear.”
What we do know about PropOrNot from its twitter feed leads to some doubts about its, well, bona fides:
Greenwald is not alone in his criticism of this report
@craigtimberg fwiw, a lot of reporters passed on this story.
— Sheera Frenkel (@sheeraf) November 25, 2016
Sheera Frankel writes for BuzzFeed. Yes, you got it. The Washington Post ran a story that had been rejected by BuzzFeed because of the shady sourcing.
Who got labeled as Russian stooges? Just about any outlet that was critical of Hillary Clinton regardless of their politics:
One of the core functions of PropOrNot appears to be its compilation of a lengthy blacklist of news and political websites that it smears as peddlers of “Russian propaganda.” Included on this blacklist of supposed propaganda outlets are prominent independent left-wing news sites such as Truthout, Naked Capitalism, Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, and Truthdig.
Also included are popular libertarian hubs such as Zero Hedge, Antiwar.com, and the Ron Paul Institute, along with the hugely influential right-wing website the Drudge Report and the publishing site WikiLeaks. Far-right, virulently anti-Muslim blogs such as Bare Naked Islam are likewise dubbed Kremlin mouthpieces. Basically, everyone who isn’t comfortably within the centrist Hillary Clinton/Jeb Bush spectrum is guilty. On its Twitter account, the group announced a new “plugin” that automatically alerts the user that a visited website has been designated by the group to be a Russian propaganda outlet.
You either have a free press or you don’t. Nothing done by any of the fake news rose to the level, documented by John Podesta’s hacked emails, of “mainstream” journalists actually coordinating their coverage of the Clinton campaign with the Clinton campaign. In fact, mainstream news outlets were not even included in the study.
If one wants to see where this is going, you don’t need to look any further that PolitiFact or the Washington Post’s Fact Check or Snopes. Every Democrat claim is ruled true, check the coverage of Obamacare if you doubt me on this, and criticisms of the progressive party line are ruled false. A Mitt Romney claim was ruled “true but false” by the Washington Post and Federalist article on the Clinton Foundation was ruled “true but misleading.”
In its most honest form this is simply a raw attempt at censorship and discrediting views not acceptable to the corporatists elite in America. At its worst, it is just another attack on the trust Americans have in any news media… something very much like what the Russians would do.