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Dec 01, 2016 | www.newyorker.com
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...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.
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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."
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In a phone interview, a spokesman for PropOrNot brushed off the criticism. "If there's a pattern of activity over time, especially combined with underlying technical tells, then, yeah, we're going to highlight it," he said. He argued that Russian disinformation is an enormous problem that requires direct confrontation. "It's been clear for a while that Russia is a little braver, more aggressive, more willing to push the boundaries of what was previously acceptable." He said that, to avoid painting outlets with too broad a brush, the group employs a sophisticated analysis that relies on no single criterion in isolation.
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. "There's no a-priori reason, stepping back, that a conservative news site would rely on so many Russian news sources. What is up with that?"
I asked to see the raw data PropOrNot used to determine that the Drudge Report was a Russian-propaganda outlet. The spokesman said that the group would release it to the public eventually, but could not share it at the moment: "That takes a lot of work, and we're an all-volunteer crew." Instead, he urged me to read the Drudge Report myself, suggesting that its nature would be apparent.
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Another major issue with PropOrNot is that its members insist on anonymity. If one aims to cut through a disinformation campaign, transparency is paramount. Otherwise you just stoke further paranoia. The Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev, who debunks Kremlin propaganda on his site, Noodleremover, floated the possibility that PropOrNot was Ukrainians waging a disinformation campaign against Russia.
The PropOrNot spokesman would speak to me only on the condition of anonymity and revealed only bare biographical details on background. "Are you familiar with the assassination of Jo Cox?" he asked, when I asked why his group remained in the shadows, referring to the British M.P. murdered by a right-wing extremist. "Well, that is a big thing for us. Basically, Russia uses crazy people to kill its enemies."
I can report that the spokesman was an American man, probably in his thirties or forties, who was well versed in Internet culture and swore enthusiastically. He said that the group numbered about forty people. "I can say we have people who work for major tech companies and people who have worked for the government in different regards, but we're all acting in a private capacity," he said. "One thing we're all in agreement about is that Russia should not be able to fuck with the American people. That is not cool." The spokesman said that the group began with fewer than a dozen members, who came together while following Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine. The crisis was accompanied by a flood of disinformation designed to confuse Ukraine and its allies. "That was a big wake-up call to us. It's like, wait a minute, Russia is creating this very effective fake-news propaganda in conjunction with their military operation on the ground," the spokesman said. "My God, if they can do that there, why can't they do it here?"
PropOrNot has said that the group includes Ukrainian-Americans, though the spokesman laughed at the suggestion that they were Ukrainian agents. PropOrNot has claimed total financial and editorial independence.
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.
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Dec 06, 2016 | www.nakedcapitalism.comknowbuddhau December 5, 2016 at 7:37 am
Skip Intro gets it. "Young techno-experts" FTW!
CLINTON: Well, [Senator Lugar], I want to thank you for the report that you did on the [B]roadcasting [B]oard of [G]overnors and all of the problems that it has experienced. I agree with you. Walter Isaacson is an excellent choice. The board is a very invigorated group of Republicans and Democrats. They understand. We are engaged in an information war . During the Cold War, we did a great job in getting America's message out. After the Berlin Wall fell we said, okay, fine, enough of that. We've done it. We're done. And unfortunately, we are paying a big price for it.
And our private media cannot fill that gap. In fact, our private media, particularly cultural programming, often works at counterpurposes to what we truly are as Americans and what our values are. [Cue "Collateral Murder"?]
I remember having an Afghan general tell me that the only thing he thought about Americans is that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis. Because the only TV he ever saw was Baywatch and World Wide Wrestling. So we are in an information war. And we are losing that war. I'll be very blunt in my assessment. Al-Jazeera is winning.
The Chinese have opened up a global English-language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened up an English-language network. I've seen it in a few countries, and it's quite instructive. We are cutting back. The BBC is cutting back.
So here's what we are trying to do. In the State Department, we have pushed very hard on new media. So we have an Arabic Twitter feed. We have a Farsi Twitter feed. I have this group of young techno-experts who are out there engaging on websites and we're putting all of our young Arabic-speaking diplomats out, so that they are talking about our values.
Walter [Issacson] is working hard with his Board to try to transform the broadcasting efforts. Because most people still get their news from TV and radio. So even though we're pushing online, we can't forget TV and radio. And so I look - I would look very much towards your cooperation, to try to figure out how we get back in the game on this. Because I hate ceding what we are most expert in to anybody else . http://freemediaonline.org/freemediaonlineblog/2011/05/04/secretary-clinton-u-s-is-losing-the-information-war/
In case some aren't familiar with the BBG:
The BBG was formed in 1999 and runs on a $721 million annual budget. It reports directly to Secretary of State John Kerry and operates like a holding company for a host of Cold War-era CIA spinoffs and old school "psychological warfare" projects: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Martí, Voice of America, Radio Liberation from Bolshevism (since renamed "Radio Liberty") and a dozen other government-funded radio stations and media outlets pumping out pro-American propaganda across the globe. https://pando.com/2015/03/01/internet-privacy-funded-by-spooks-a-brief-history-of-the-bbg/
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