A shady website that claims “Russia is Manipulating US Opinion Through Online Propaganda” has compiled a blacklist of websites its anonymous authors accuse of pushing fake news and Russian propaganda. The blacklist includes over 200 outlets, from the right-wing Drudge Report and Russian government-funded Russia Today, to Wikileaks and an array of marginal conspiracy and far-right sites. The blacklist also includes some of the flagship publications of the progressive left, including Truthdig, Counterpunch, Truthout, Naked Capitalism, and the Black Agenda Report, a leftist African-American opinion hub that is critical of the liberal black political establishment.
Called PropOrNot, the blacklisting organization was described by the Washington Post’s Craig Timberg as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.” The Washington Post agreed to preserve the anonymity of the group’s director on the grounds that exposure could result in their being targeted by “Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.” The Post failed to explain what methods PropOrNot relied on to conclude that “stories planted or promoted by the Russian disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.” (Timberg also cited a report co-authored by Aaron Weisburg, founder of the one-man anti-Palestinian “Internet Haganah” operation, who has been accused of interfering in federal investigations, stealing the personal information of anarchists, online harassment, and fabricating information to smear his targets.)
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.
Though the supposed experts behind PropOrNot remain unknown, the site has been granted a veneer of credibility thanks to the Washington Post, and journalists from the New York Times, including deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weissman to former Obama senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer, are hailing Timberg’s story as Pulitzer-level journalism. “Russia appears to have successfully hacked American democracy,” declared Sahil Kapur, the senior political reporter for Bloomberg. The dead-enders of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president have also seized on PropOrNot’s claims as proof that the election was rigged, with Clinton confidant and Center For American Progress president Neera Tanden declaring, “Wake up people,” as she blasted out the Washington Post article on Russian black ops.
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.”
Among the most ironic characteristics of PropOrNot is its claim to be defending journalistic integrity, a rigorous adherence to the facts, and most of all, a sense of political levity. In fact, the group’s own literature reflects a deeply paranoid view of Russia and the outside world. According to PropOrNot’s website, Russia is staging a hostile takeover of America’s alternative online media environment “in order to Make Russia Great Again (as a new ‘Eurasian’ empire stretching from Dublin to Vladisvostok), on the other. That means preserving Russian allies like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, breaking up the ‘globalist’ EU, NATO, and US-aligned trade and defense organizations, and getting countries to join ‘Eurasianist’ Russian equivalents… Or else.”
The message is clear: Stamp out the websites blacklisted by PropOrNot,or submit to the malevolent influence of Putin’s “new global empire.”
Among the websites listed by PropOrNot as “allies” are a number of groups funded by the U.S. government or NATO. They include InterpreterMag, an anti-Russian media monitoring blog funded through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an arm of the U.S. government, which is edited by the hardline neoconservative Michael Weiss. Polygraph Fact Check, another project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty aimed at Russian misinformation, is listed as an “ally.” So is Bellingcat, the crowdsourced military analysis blog run by Elliot Higgins through the Atlantic Council, which receives funding from the U.S. State Department, various Gulf monarchies, and the weapons industry. (Bellingcat is directly funded by Google, according to Higgins.)
Unfortunately for PropOrNot’s mysterious authors, an alliance requires the consent of all parties involved. Alerted to his designation on the website, Bellingcat’s Higgins immediately disavowed it: “Just want to note I hadn’t heard of Propornot before the WP piece and never gave permission to them to call Bellingcat ‘allies,'” he wrote.
As scrutiny of PropOrNot increases, its credibility is rapidly unraveling. But that has not stopped Beltway media wiseguys and Democratic political operatives from hyping its claims. Fake news and Russian propaganda have become the great post-election moral panic, a creeping Sharia-style conspiracy theory for shell-shocked liberals. Hoping to punish the dark foreign forces they blame for rigging the election, many of these insiders have latched onto a McCarthyite campaign that calls for government investigations of a wide array of alternative media outlets. In this case, the medicine might be worse than the disease.
Max Blumenthal is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.
IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin cups his ear to listen to a question as he departs after a summit on the Ukraine crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer