The Washington Post’s Propaganda about Russian Propaganda

By William K. Black
November 28, 2016     Kansas City, MO

The Washington Post has published a fevered piece of propaganda about Russian propaganda.  The trouble begins in the headline and the first sentence of the article.  The headline is: “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say.  The first sentence reads:

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.

The article provides no basis for its claims about “experts” and “independent researchers” who purportedly used (unspecified) “Internet analytics tools” in their “study.”  The first group, which does not purport to have used any scientific methodology explicitly resurrects 1992 USIA word pictures and charts in lieu of analysis.

The web site of PropOrNot, the supposed expert that supposedly studied the role of Russian propaganda using the unspecified “tools” calls itself “Your Friendly Neighborhood Propaganda Identification Service, Since 2016!.”   The same web site states that:

We are anonymous for now, because we are civilian Davids taking on a state-backed adversary Goliath, and we take things like the international Russian intimidation of journalists, “Pizzagate”-style mob harassment, and the assassination of Jo Cox very seriously, but we can in some cases provide background information about ourselves on a confidential basis to professional journalists. We do not publicly describe all of our sources and methods, although we describe most of them, and again, we can in some cases provide much more detail to journalists and other researchers in order to contextualize their reporting.

So, how did the Washington Post know that (a) that PropOrNot is (a) expert, (b) independent, and (c) produced a real study using scientifically reliable “internet analytics tools” (which it won’t describe to the public)?  And what does the assassination of the UK MP Jo Cox have to do with Russia or PropOrNot?  Under that claimed basis for anonymity every American could demand anonymity whenever talking to the media.  We are not supposed to worry that PropOrNot will condemn and call for congressional investigations of real analysts it disagrees with on the basis of methodologies they will not disclose because their web site assures us that “we have sophisticated analytical tools at our disposal.”

The Washington Post allowed the alleged executive director of PropOrNot to be quoted anonymously on the following grounds (which assumes the accuracy of the anonymous persons’ claims).

[T]he executive director of PropOrNot … spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.

How do we know that is why they demanded anonymity?  Sources often know that if their identity were known their claims would be subject to great doubt by readers for a host of reasons such as bias and a tendency to overstate greatly the facts.  Here is how the paper described PropOrNot:

Another group, called PropOrNot, a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds, planned to release its own findings Friday showing the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns.

Gosh, it’s almost as if the Washington Post (in an article complaining about this kind of uncritical practice) simply summarized and parroted back PropOrNot’s self-description on its website with no independent analysis or inquiry by the journalist.  As Greenwald shows, the Washington Post’s executive editor did the same in an even more cursory twitter format.

Who is PropOrNot?

We are an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including professional experience in computer science, statistics, public policy, and national security affairs.

We are nonpartisan, in that our team includes all major political persuasions except the pro-Russian kind.

The website says that the group has over 30 members, so how can the Washington Post know that the team is, for example, “non-partisan?”  How can we possibly know whether PropOrNot is actually “independent?”  Its terminology is frequently identical to the phrases used in the article by the three identified authors.  Are the three authors in fact not associated in any way with PropOrNot?  How did the Washington Post check on the claim that the two groups were not associated given the anonymity of PropOrNot’s membership?

The Washington Post, of course, has the traditional reasons for being uncritical when it comes to its sources at PropOrNot.

PropOrNot’s monitoring report …was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release….

PropOrNot’s list of web sites that are purported propaganda outlets for Russia fails the straight face test.  On the list is one of the world’s top financial web sites, Naked Capitalism.  If PropOrNot had any analytical integrity this result would have been impossible.  (I know Naked Capitalism’s site well so I limit my comments to its inclusion on the list.)  After I wrote most of this article I discovered that Glenn Greenwald has made many of these points in a recent column.

This is PropOrNot’s own description of its methodology and its analytics.

An Initial Set of Sites That Reliably Echo Russian Propaganda

We have used a combination of manual and automated analysis, including analysis of content, timing, technical indicators, and other reporting, in order to initially identify (“red-flag”) the following as Russian propaganda outlets. We then confirmed our initial assessment by applying whatever criteria we did not originally employ during the red-flag process, and we reevaluate our findings as needed.

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 [emphasis and links in the original].

First, note that in addition to not knowing who did the analysis we do not know how they did the analysis.  We are told only that they used “a combination of manual and automated analysis” – a phrase designed to be so vague that it is meaningless.  Second, note their “analytics.”  While they do not know why a web site published any article, they say there are only two possibilities.

  1. They “are knowingly directed and paid by Russian intelligence officers,” or
  2. They are “at the very least acting as bona-fide “useful idiots” of the Russian intelligence services”

So, PropOrNot doesn’t know, and has no proof, of why any website published any article but they are sure that anyone who ran articles they dislike is either a paid agent for Russian intelligence or a “useful idiot” for Russia’s spies.  PropOrNot’s analytics are classic smears – facially ridiculous propaganda.  If you are on PropOrNot’s list, you are conclusively guilty under that group’s (substitute for) analytics.  Greenwald gives examples of PropOrNot’s recurrent juvenile messaging.  None of this troubles the Washington Post, which treats these sham analytics as if they are represented revealed truth.

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.

Of course, the Washington Post could have applied some basic standards of evaluating the reliability of a source.  Here are the relevant suggestions that one media critic publishes on its web site.

5) Check to see whether the social-media account/commenter/outlet lacks the hallmarks of good actual journalism: Are the stories factual? Are the facts placed in appropriate context? Do the headlines match the content? Are the agendas of the sources clearly disclosed? Are there good explanations? Does it bring clarity to complicated issues? Is there an absence of hype?

6) Check to see whether the social-media account/commenter/outlet has been called out by other fact-checkers, journalists, debunkers, etc, already.

8) Given all that, check to see whether the social-media account/commenter/outlet qualifies under our definition of propaganda:

A systematic form of persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for political, ideological, and religious purposes, through the controlled transmission of deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.

The Washington Post story fails #5 in multiple ways.  The social media sources they rely on so uncritically do not have their agendas disclosed because the people involved are not disclosed so it is impossible to know their agendas.  I’ve explained how the title does not track the content.  Both the article and PropOrNot reek with hype.  There are no good explanation for the methodologies or the analytics.

The story fails #6 for one cannot check whether the authors of the PropOrNot “study” have previously been “called out” by other fact-checkers because the authors are anonymous.

The Washington Post article and the two reports meet the definition of “propaganda” provided in #8.  The social media site that suggested these basic tests of journalism is PropOrNot.

As I noted, the report by the three authors and PropOrNot’s web pages often employ identical phrases suggesting that they are share a common underlying theory.  It is important to understand how expansive that underlying theory is and how bizarre its implications are for its propaganda claims.  The common underlying theory, as phrased by the three named authors, is “Russia’s desire to sow distrust in the American system of government.”  The way to fix problems with U.S. institutions is to write about the nature of those problems in a candid and blunt fashion.  But the authors, most of them anonymous, that the Washington Post relied on define such candor as “propaganda” for Russia.  As anyone who knows my economic views understands, I think that returning to the gold standard is a terrible policy idea.  But I would never list supporting the gold standard as an indicator of pro-Russian propaganda – as PropOrNot does.

The three authors claim that Russian propaganda “sows distrust” in four areas.  In politics, it sows distrust by revealing political corruption.  In economics, the three authors claim the following forms of distrust are the goal.

Financial propaganda weakens citizen and investor confidence in foreign markets and posits the failure of capitalist economies. Stoking fears over the national debt, attacking institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and attempts to discredit Western financial experts and business leaders are all part of this arsenal.

We can now solve the mystery of why these two groups despise Naked Capitalism.  The issue has nothing to do with Russian propaganda.  It has everything to do with the high quality of analysis in Naked Capitalism.  My God, authors often criticize the Federal Reserve on the pages of Naked Capitalism!  Wow, they must be Putin’s useful idiots.  We also present evidence of the epidemics of fraud led by “financial experts and business leaders” on the pages of New Economic Perspectives and Naked Capitalism.  We must be the modern incarnation of the KGB (FSB).

But wait, there is a sting in the tail that the three named authors missed.  Naked Capitalism is known for debunking “fears over the national debt.”  The chances that PropOrNot understand that fact closely approach nil.  Which folks are infamous for “stoking fears over the national debt?”  They include each of the prominent politicians that these two self-described anti-propaganda groups claim are the primary victims of Russian propaganda – Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and John Podesta.  Each of these politicians is a fierce austerity hawk that loves to stoke fears over the national debt.  Naked Capitalism authors overwhelmingly seek to counter these financially illiterate fears.

The broader point, however, is that while I am a severe critic of these austerity hawks I have never thought that they favored austerity due to Putin.  Bob Rubin is a far likelier explanation for why New Democrats think continuing the long war of austerity against the working class is good economics and good politics.

The third supposed focus of Russian propaganda for sowing distrust is race.  Recall that both of the self-described anti-propaganda outfits is highly associated with support for Hillary Clinton.  Consider the extraordinary price America and Americans would bear if we were to fail to speak candidly about this range of issues that the two groups view as Russian propaganda.

Social issues currently provide a useful window for Russian messaging. Police brutality, racial tensions, protests, anti-government standoffs, online privacy concerns, and alleged government misconduct are all emphasized to magnify their scale and leveraged to undermine the fabric of society.

Recall that PropOrNot claims its members insist on anonymity because of their “online privacy concerns.”  (They say they are afraid they will be assassinated if their identity becomes known to intelligence services.)  Recall also that because of disclosures, which the Obama administration sought zealously to prevent, we know that the NSA routinely violates U.S. citizens’ privacy interests.  Police brutality and racism “undermine the fabric of society.”  Sunlight is the best disinfectant against such maladies, which requires candid discussions of our problems and how to fix them.  It takes breathtaking hypocrisy for these groups to complain about blog sites disclosing and documenting U.S. “government misconduct” when these groups’ self-described purpose is to disclose and document “government misconduct” by Russia.

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