The Washington Post headquarters in Washington, D.C. The paper’s report about purportedly pro-Russian propaganda sites implicated more than 200 sources from various points across a wide range of the political spectrum. (Evan Vucci / AP)
Editor’s note: Glenn Greenwald’s and other journalists’ criticism (below) refers to a recent Washington Post article that suggested Truthdig and numerous other news outlets were propagandists for Russia. The Post’s story is based on unsubstantiated allegations by an anonymous organization. Truthdig never has and never would propagandize for anyone.
This article was originally published at 5:51 p.m. PST on the evening of Sunday, November 27, 2016.
A new McCarthyism has emerged in the wake of the contentious 2016 presidential election: Several independent thinkers and independent publications that criticize established power structures and policies have been accused of being pro-Russia propagandists.
What’s more, one anonymous source of these accusations has been given wide media exposure thanks to The Washington Post’s uncritical treatment and tacit stamp of legitimacy. On Thursday, Post reporter Craig Timberg published an article that relied heavily on the source, a vaguely defined organization promoting its claims via a sketchy website called PropOrNot.
But not everyone in the media was convinced. Over the weekend, The Intercept and other media sources, some that were named as propagandists, roundly criticized The Washington Post for running with the PropOrNot report.
The Intercept’s Lee Fang weighed in on Saturday:
Finally, a Washington Post story this week alleged a Russian government role in spreading fake news to help Trump. But its sources were not remotely credible. For instance, it cited a list that characterized as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda” a number of well-established and well-respected websites including Truthdig, a site published by award-winning journalist and long-time Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, Naked Capitalism, and Truth Out.
Fang’s Intercept colleagues Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton went into more detail in their own story posted the same day:
This Post report was one of the most widely circulated political news articles on social media over the last 48 hours, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of U.S. journalists and pundits with large platforms hailing it as an earth-shattering exposé. It was the most-read piece on the entire Post website on Friday after it was published.
Yet the article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics. It was not surprising to learn that, as BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, “a lot of reporters passed on this story.” Its huge flaws are self-evident. But the Post gleefully ran with it and then promoted it aggressively, led by its Executive Editor Marty Baron:
Russian propaganda effort helped spread fake news during election, say independent researchers https://t.co/3ETVXWw16Q
— Marty Baron (@PostBaron) November 25, 2016
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.”
In other words, the individuals behind this newly created group are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities. The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist. Echoing the Wisconsin senator, the group refers to its lengthy collection of sites spouting Russian propaganda as “The List.”
Here’s an excerpt from Timberg’s original Washington Post story:
PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.
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.
… “The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy,” said the executive director of PropOrNot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers. “It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign. … It worked.”
He and other researchers expressed concern that the U.S. government has few tools for detecting or combating foreign propaganda. They expressed hope that their research detailing the power of Russian propaganda would spur official action.
Despite the seriousness of PropOrNot’s allegations, not to mention its call for “official action,” the organization’s motives, institutional affiliations and methodology were all left unaccounted for and uncontested in the Post’s article, even as Timberg repeated claims that effectively blacklisted more than 200 outlets. The targeted outlets on PropOrNot’s list—including Truthdig, Truthout, the Black Agenda Report, Naked Capitalism, along with the Ron Paul Institute, The Drudge Report, InfoWars, Russia Today and WikiLeaks—represented a wide range of viewpoints and political positions.
How PropOrNot arrived at its conclusions is only vaguely described; it used a couple of brief examples and a circuitous explanation that shuts down rebuttal by using subjective and one-sided criteria:
Please note that our criteria are behavioral. That means the characteristics of the propaganda outlets we identify are motivation-agnostic. For purposes of this definition it does not matter whether the sites listed here are being knowingly directed and paid by Russian intelligence officers, or whether they even knew they were echoing Russian propaganda at any particular point: If they meet these criteria, they are at the very least acting as bona-fide “useful idiots” of the Russian intelligence services, and are worthy of further scrutiny.
We assess that this overall Russian effort is at least semi-centralized, with multiple Russian projects and influence operations working in parallel to manage the direct and outsourced production of propaganda across a wide range of outlets. It is data-driven, and rewards effective entrepreneurship and innovation with increased funding and other resources. There are varying degrees of involvement in it, and awareness of involvement. Some people involved seem genuinely unaware that they are being used by Russia to produce propaganda, but many others seem to know full well.
The Post’s story was unquestioningly referenced in pickups by other mainstream outlets such as USA Today and The Daily Beast. Comment threads on Reddit and Daily Kos lit up with discussion about the Post piece, and social media users spread the word by sharing links on Twitter and Facebook.
But Norton and Greenwald pointed out another detail that Timberg, as well as the other sites who picked up his story, had apparently missed: Several “allies” listed on PropOrNot’s site said they had had no contact with the organization, or even knowledge of it prior to the release of the Post’s story:
.@ggreenwald No-one I've spoken to listed as “allies” on their site had even heard of them before the WP piece.
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) November 25, 2016
Greenwald, who noted that Timberg did not link to PropOrNot’s website in the Post’s story, called attention to PropOrNot’s Twitter account, which recently released these tweets:
Awww, wook at all the angwy Putinists, trying to change the subject – they're so vewwy angwy!! It's cute ???? We don't censor; just highlight.
— PropOrNot ID Service (@propornot) November 26, 2016
Fascists. Straight up muthafuckin' fascists. That's what we're up against. Unwittingly or not, they work for Russia. https://t.co/LBp2y19PTv
— PropOrNot ID Service (@propornot) November 22, 2016
We'll consider revealing our names when Russia reveals the names of those running its propaganda operations in the West ????
— PropOrNot ID Service (@propornot) November 25, 2016
We just published a BETA (very beta) version of our Chrome plugin, which highlights domains we've IDed: https://t.co/FaGTOTJO2C
— PropOrNot ID Service (@propornot) November 25, 2016
That last tweet describes a plug-in designed to alert users when they land on sites designated as “propaganda” by PropOrNot.
Greenwald also took to Twitter to denouce the Post’s report:
Big irony: the people who shared & praised this trash article without any critical eye are the same ones most loudly lamenting “fake news” https://t.co/C6UvMqNjUU
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 27, 2016
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 26, 2016
WashPost did much good reporting this year, but Friday's article smearing websites as Russian tools may be the most despicable of the year. https://t.co/sAe1Yuobfe
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 26, 2016
He was joined by other members of the media who commented in 140 characters or less:
— Andrew Perez (@andrewperezdc) November 27, 2016
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) November 26, 2016
This is straightforward libel. They put Naked Capitalism on a list of Russian controlled propaganda. Outrageous. https://t.co/5Xq79MoZkH
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) November 25, 2016
— Sheera Frenkel (@sheeraf) November 25, 2016
According to ProporNot, you're a Russian propagandist if you're critical of US policy or think military confrontation with RUS is dangerous pic.twitter.com/8kX538n6Nj
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) November 25, 2016
Max Blumenthal on Friday posted his analysis on AlterNet:
Despite the Washington Post’s charitable description of PropOrNot as a group of independent-minded researchers dedicated to protecting the integrity of American democracy, the shadowy group bears many of the qualities of the red enemies it claims to be battling. In addition to its blacklist of Russian dupes, it lists a collection of outlets funded by the U.S. State Department, NATO and assorted tech and weapons companies as “allies.” PropOrNot’s methodology is so shabby it is able to peg widely read outlets like Naked Capitalism, a leading left-wing financial news blog, as Russian propaganda operations. …
PropOrNot’s malicious agenda is clearly spelled out on its website. While denying McCarthyite intentions, the group is openly attempting to compel “formal investigations by the U.S. government, because the kind of folks who make propaganda for brutal authoritarian oligarchies are often involved in a wide range of bad business.” The group also seeks to brand major progressive politics sites (and a number of prominent right-wing opinion outlets) as “‘gray’ fake-media propaganda outlets” influenced or directly operated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). It can then compel Facebook and Google to ban them, denying them the ad revenue they rely on to survive.
Though PropOrNot’s hidden authors claim, “we do not reach our conclusions lightly,” the group’s methodology leaves more than enough room to smear an outlet on political grounds. Among the criteria PropOrNot identifies as clear signs of Russian propaganda are, “Support for policies like Brexit, and the breakup of the EU and Eurozone” and, “Opposition to Ukrainian resistance to Russia and Syrian resistance to Assad.”
By these standards, any outlet that raises the alarm about the considerable presence of extreme right-wing elements among the post-Maidan Ukrainian government or that questions the Western- and Saudi-funded campaign for regime change in Syria can be designated a Russia dupe or a paid agent of the FSB. Indeed, while admitting that they have no idea whether any of the outlets they blacklisted are being paid by Russian intelligence or are even aware they are spreading Russian propaganda, PropOrNot’s authors concluded that any outlets that have met their highly politicized criteria “have effectively become tools of the Russian intelligence services, and are worthy of further investigation.”
Finally, the Ron Paul Institute commented Saturday on being named by PropOrNot, and by extension by The Washington Post, as a mouthpiece for the Putin administration:
What you will not find on the PropOrNot website is any particularized analysis of why the RPI website, or any website for that matter, is included on the list. Instead, you will see only sweeping generalizations from an anonymous organization. The very popular website drudgereport.com even makes the list. While listed websites span the gamut of political ideas, they tend to share in common an independence from the mainstream media.
Timberg’s article can be seen as yet another big media attempt to shift the blame for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidential election away from Clinton, her campaign, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that undermined Sen Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) challenge to Clinton in the Democratic primary.
The article may also be seen as another step in the effort to deter people from looking to alternative sources of information by labeling those information sources as traitorous or near-traitorous.
Only the Post’s journalists know their own motives, but by running stories like this without proper vetting—and without including comment from blacklisted sources—they leave the rest of us to read between the lines. What we see spells trouble for press freedom at a crucial moment.