AUSTIN, Texas — On Thanksgiving, The Washington Post published a widely shared — and widely criticized — report accusing a host of media organizations of spreading Russian propaganda, despite little evidence to support the claims.
In the Nov. 24 article, Craig Timberg, the Post’s national technology reporter, cited the work of “experts” who accuse hundreds of news outlets, including MintPress News, of broadcasting “fake news” as part of “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.”
While the story quickly spread to other mainstream media outlets, from USA Today to The Daily Beast, many media analysts were quick to criticize the report and its sources. On Monday, Matt Taibbi called the piece “shameful” and “disgusting” in Rolling Stone. On Saturday, Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept, accused the Post of “disgracefully” promoting a “McCarthyite blacklist.”
“The article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics,” the pair wrote.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s win in the presidential election, the Russian government has been accused of influencing the results and hacking voting machines by the Hillary Clinton campaign and others who have failed to offer any substantial proof supporting such claims. On Thursday, the same day Timberg’s piece appeared in the Post, the European Union passed a nonbinding resolution critical of Russian state-owned media, such as the RT news network, which the European parliament accused of attempting to undermine “democratic values” and “divide Europe.”
The Post story ties renewed tensions with Russia to a recent flurry of concern over the potential impact of “fake news” on American voters and the role of social media in spreading those stories. While some sites publish stories which are blatantly false, calls to “take action” against “fake news” have led some writers to warn about the potential for censorship of unpopular opinions.
PropOrNot claims to have revealed a massive network of websites, social network accounts, and media outlets spreading biased news on behalf of Russia. However, a closer examination of the organization and its methods suggests that PropOrNot is more interested in targeting watchdogs and critics of the Democratic Party, the Obama administration, and the U.S. government’s corporate and military ties than revealing actual Russian agents.
‘Any sane reporter would have booted them out the door’
In addition to MintPress, PropOrNot’s list of purported propaganda sites includes WikiLeaks, the well-known repository of leaked government and corporate information, and respected alternative and independent media sites Antiwar.com, Black Agenda Report, CounterPunch, Truthout, and Truthdig. While the list does include outlets of dubious accuracy, such as Alex Jones’ Infowars and Prison Planet websites, and white supremacist websites such as The Daily Stormer, all the outlets are presented equally on “The List,” without context or evidence of their alleged ties to Russia.
Although a FAQ on the PropOrNot website claims the organization is “an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise,” nothing is known about PropOrNot’s membership or their qualifications.
The Post granted the team total anonymity, claiming that they need to hide their identities to protect them from retaliation from “Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.” It’s an unusual move that could be considered a breach of journalistic ethics. Typically, journalists and their editors only grant anonymity to sources if they can cite specific and immediate risks to their lives or livelihoods, and anonymous sources are not allowed to attack other individuals, much less dozens of news organizations.
The Post’s decision to publicize PropOrNot’s blacklist while granting the group a shield of anonymity has drawn widespread criticism.
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) November 25, 2016
“Any sane reporter would have booted them out the door. You want to blacklist hundreds of people, but you won’t put your name to your claims? Take a hike.”
Greenwald and Norton were even harsher in their criticism:
“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.”
Meanwhile, PropOrNot’s Twitter account has been extremely active since the story was published, even engaging in bizarre, insult-laden tirades aimed at their critics.
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
A dubious methodology based on ‘click-bait’ headlines and vague definitions
In addition to questionable ethics and unstable online behavior, PropOrNot’s methods for identifying purported Russian collaborators are equally dubious. For example, PropOrNot claims to have identified social media accounts, which it calls “useful idiots,” that willingly spread stories based largely on appealing, “click-bait” headlines. But the use of appealing, easily-digestible headlines that encourage readers to click and share has become standard practice across the entire spectrum of online content.
Writing on Friday for Fortune, Mathew Ingram admitted that sharing posts without properly verifying their content is a problem, but noted that this widespread behavior is distinct from the deliberate dissemination of propaganda. He continued:
“As we know, this describes millions of people who use Twitter and Facebook. Are they part of the problem? Clearly. Are they Russian dupes? That seems like a stretch. What the report seems to be saying is that Russia took advantage of the social web’s desire to just share things without reading them. It may be true, but so does every other media outlet.”
A deeper look at PropOrNot’s methodology, revealed in PropOrNot’s “Black Friday Report,” shows the organization deliberately targeted websites critical of the U.S. government, the Obama administration, or Hillary Clinton.
In the document, which was actually published on Nov. 26, two days after the Post cited their claims in print, the group writes that an outlet should be considered suspicious if it “has a history of generally echoing the Russian propaganda ‘line.’” The authors then proceed to define Russian propaganda so generously that almost anyone critical of U.S. foreign policy could be considered a potential Russian agent. Viewpoints favorable to Russia apparently include defending Donald Trump, “radical” political parties, China, or Iran.
Further, according to their stated methodology, any site which criticizes the “US, Obama, Hillary Clinton, the EU, Angela Merkel, NATO, Ukraine, Jewish people, US allies, the ‘mainstream media,’ and democrats, the center-right or center-left, and moderates of all stripes,” automatically becomes suspect. Based on its own definitions, PropOrNot clearly fails to distinguish between anti-Semitism, or bigoted attacks on Jewish people and their culture, and criticism of the Israeli government and its policies.
PropOrNot’s ‘ideological litmus test’
“Propornot’s ‘criteria’ for inclusion on their blacklist is actually an ideological litmus test: if you hold certain views, you’re in the pay of the Kremlin, or else an ‘unwitting agent,’” Justin Raimondo wrote on Monday.
In his column on Antiwar.com, Raimondo continued:
“The propornot site is filled with complex graphs, and the text is riddled with ‘scientific’-sounding phrases, but when you get right down to it their ‘methodology’ boils down to this: if you don’t fit within a very narrow range of allowable opinion, either falling off the left edge or the right edge, you’re either a paid Russian troll or else you’re being ‘manipulated’ by forces you don’t understand and don’t want to understand.”
He also suggested that PropOrNot’s claims, and the Post’s willingness to spread them, threaten the First Amendment and press freedoms.
“These people are authoritarians, plain and simple: under the guise of fighting authoritarianism, they seek to ban dissenting views, jail the dissenters, and impose a narrow range of permissible debate on the public discourse.”
But, he argued, the best journalism has always questioned the government and offered dissenting views that may not benefit the rich and powerful.
“To be included on their list of ‘subversives’ is really a badge of honor, and one we here at Antiwar.com wear proudly,” Raimondo concluded.
The same is true of the writers and staff at MintPress News.
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