As we reported last week, in an article that has been widely blasted, the WaPo wrote that "two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem."
PropOrNot has pushed a conspiratorial thesis, without any actual proof, that the listed websites have been either used directly or covertly by the Russians to spread propaganda.
While the bill passed the House with a sweeping majority, it is unknown if and when the bill will work its way through the Senate and be passed into law, although one would think that it has far higher chances of passing under president Obama than the President-Elect. It is also unclear if it will be used to shut down websites anonymously characterized as "useful idiots" or subversive elements used in disseminating supposed Russian propaganda.
In late October, I received an e-mail from “The PropOrNot Team,” which described itself as a “newly-formed independent team of computer scientists, statisticians, national security professionals, journalists and political activists, dedicated to identifying propaganda—particularly Russian propaganda targeting a U.S. audience.” PropOrNot said that it had identified two hundred Web sites that “qualify as Russian propaganda outlets.” The sites’ reach was wide—they are read by at least fifteen million Americans. PropOrNot said that it had “drafted a preliminary report about this for the office of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), and after reviewing our report they urged us to get in touch with you and see about making it a story.”
Reporting on Internet phenomena, one learns to be wary of anonymous collectives freely offering the fruits of their research. I told PropOrNot that I was probably too busy to write a story, but I asked to see the report. In reply, PropOrNot asked me to put the group in touch with “folks at the NYTimes, WaPo, WSJ, and anyone else who you think would be interested.” Deep in the middle of another project, I never followed up.
PropOrNot managed to connect with the Washington Post on its own. Last week, the Post published a story based in part on PropOrNot’s research. Headlined “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say,” the report claimed that a number of researchers had uncovered a “sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign” that spread fake-news articles across the Internet with the aim of hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump. It prominently cited the PropOrNot research. The story topped the Post’s most-read list, and was shared widely by prominent journalists and politicians on Twitter. The former White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, “Why isn’t this the biggest story in the world right now?”
Vladimir Putin and the Russian state’s affinity for Trump has been well-reported. During the campaign, countless stories speculated on connections between Trump and Putin and alleged that Russia contributed to Trump’s election using propaganda and subterfuge. Clinton made it a major line of attack. But the Post’s story had the force of revelation, thanks in large part to the apparent scientific authority of PropOrNot’s work: the group released a thirty-two-page report detailing its methodology, and named names with its list of two hundred suspect news outlets. The organization’s anonymity, which a spokesperson maintained was due to fear of Russian hackers, added a cybersexy mystique.
But a close look at the report showed that it was a mess. “To be honest, it looks like a pretty amateur attempt,” Eliot Higgins, a well-respected researcher who has investigated Russian fake-news stories on his Web site, Bellingcat, for years, told me. “I think it should have never been an article on any news site of any note.”
The most striking issue is the overly broad criteria used to identify which outlets spread propaganda.
According to PropOrNot’s recounting of its methodology, the third step it uses is to check if a site has a history of “generally echoing the Russian propaganda ‘line’,” which includes praise for Putin, Trump, Bashar al-Assad, Syria, Iran, China, and “radical political parties in the US and Europe.” When not praising, Russian propaganda includes criticism of the United States, Barack Obama, Clinton, the European Union, Angela Merkel, nato, Ukraine, “Jewish people,” U.S. allies, the mainstream media, Democrats, and “the center-right or center-left, and moderates of all stripes.”
These criteria, of course, could include not only Russian state-controlled media organizations, such as Russia Today, but nearly every news outlet in the world, including the Post itself. Yet PropOrNot claims to be uninterested in differentiating between organizations that are explicit tools of the Russian state and so-called “useful idiots,” which echo Russian propaganda out of sincerely held beliefs. “We focus on behavior, not motivation,” they write.
To PropOrNot, simply exhibiting a pattern of beliefs outside the political mainstream is enough to risk being labelled a Russian propagandist.
The list is so broad that it can reveal absolutely nothing about the structure or pervasiveness of Russian propaganda. “It’s so incredibly scattershot,” Higgins told me. “If you’ve ever posted a pro-Russian post on your site, ever, you’re Russian propaganda.” In a scathing takedown on The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton wrote that PropOrNot “embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist.”
Yet, when pressed on the technical patterns that led PropOrNot to label the Drudge Report a Russian propaganda outlet, he could point only to a general perception of bias in its content.
“They act as a repeater to a significant extent, in that they refer audiences to sort of Russian stuff,” he said.
Given PropOrNot’s shadowy nature and the shoddiness of its work, I was puzzled by the group’s claim to have worked with Senator Ron Wyden’s office. In an e-mail, Keith Chu, a spokesman for Wyden, told me that the PropOrNot team reached out to the office in late October. Two of the group’s members, an ex-State Department employee and an I.T. researcher, described their research. “It sounded interesting, and tracked with reporting on Russian propaganda efforts,” Chu wrote. After a few phone calls with the members, it became clear that Wyden’s office could not validate the group’s findings. Chu advised the group on press strategy and suggested some reporters that it might reach out to. “I told them that if they had findings, some kind of document that they could share with reporters, that would be helpful,” he told me. Chu said that Wyden’s office played no role in creating the report and didn’t endorse the findings. Nonetheless, he added, “There has been bipartisan interest in these kind of Russian efforts, including interference in elections, for some time now, including from Senator Wyden.” This week, Wyden and six other senators sent a letter to the White House asking it to declassify information “concerning the Russian Government and the U.S. election.”
The story of PropOrNot should serve as a cautionary tale to those who fixate on malignant digital influences as a primary explanation for Trump’s stunning election. The story combines two of the most popular technological villains of post-election analysis—fake news and Russian subterfuge—into a single tantalizing package. Like the most effective Russian propaganda, the report weaved together truth and misinformation.
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