THE PROPAGANDA ABOUT RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA - part 1
by Adrian Chen
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. Indeed, the list of “propaganda outlets” has included respected left-leaning publications like CounterPunch and Truthdig, as well as the right-wing behemoth Drudge Report. 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.”
By overplaying the influence of Russia’s disinformation campaign, the report also plays directly into the hands of the Russian propagandists that it hopes to combat. “Think about RT and Sputnik’s goals, how they report their success to Putin,” Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst and a visiting fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told me. “Their success is that they have penetrated their agenda, that they have become an issue for the West. And this is exactly what happened.” (Kristine Coratti Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Post, said, “The Post reported on the work of four separate sets of researchers. PropOrNot was one. The Post reviewed its findings, and our questions about them were answered satisfactorily during the course of multiple interviews.”)