Investigation Into ‘PropOrNot Blacklist Case’ Finds Shoddy Methods and an Ominous Potential
Editor’s note: This investigation of the “PropOrNot blacklist case” was conducted independently by political reporter Bill Boyarsky. It underwent routine editing. Boyarsky is a Truthdig columnist, a former city editor of the Los Angeles Times, the author of several books, a former lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and a former member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
If you believe the shadowy organization PropOrNot—a subject of a recent article in The Washington Post—I’m a Russian intelligence agent or a “useful idiot.” Maybe a violator of the Espionage Act and the Foreign Agent Registration Act. PropOrNot also thinks I should be investigated by the FBI and the Justice Department.
It’s not because I have a Russian surname, Boyarsky. It’s because I write for Truthdig, one of more than 200 websites named in a study by PropOrNot, short for Propaganda Or Not. The sites, the study said, were pro-Russian, either intentionally or by being stupid enough to be tools of the Kremlin.
PropOrNot’s study was released in November. It might have vanished without much notice, but The Washington Post reported on it. With that boost from a big name, the study exploded across the internet.
The Post story, by Craig Timberg, appeared Nov. 24 under the headline “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during the election, experts say.” Timberg wrote that the goal of the propaganda effort, according to “independent researchers who have tracked the operation,” was “punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.” [On Dec. 7 the Post placed an editor’s note at the top of the Timberg article saying, in part, “The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so.” Click the hyperlink above to see the full statement.]
Timberg also wrote, “Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery—including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social media accounts—echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.”
Timberg cited as one of his sources PropOrNot, which he described as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technological backgrounds.” The PropOrNot report, Timberg said, “identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda. …”
First off, as its readers well know, Truthdig has never posted Russian propaganda, either knowingly or unwittingly. So the question is: Why is Truthdig on the list?
In seeking to answer it, I started with the Post story. Timberg is the newspaper’s national technology reporter, specializing in privacy, security and surveillance. He joined the Post in 1998 and has worked as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent. He co-authored a book, with Daniel Halperin, “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It.”
I emailed Timberg to say I was writing a story for Truthdig on his article and PropOrNot. I told him, “The point of my story will be precisely how did Truthdig and the other sites get on this list.” I said answering that question wouldn’t be easy for me: “PropOrNot is pretty opaque, just as Senator Joseph McCarthy was when he produced a sheet of paper in a 1950 speech which he said contained the names of 205 State Department employees who were known members of the Communist Party.”
I asked Timberg, “Did you know precisely how PropOrNot compiled its list? I think you owe an answer and an explanation to Truthdig, to me and to the other journalists and organizations that were included [either directly or indirectly]—and red baited—on the PropOrNot list.” [Editor’s insert added here for clarity.]
Timberg replied, “Hello Mr. Boyarsky. I’m directing your questions to the person at the Post who is authorized to respond, Kris Coratti. She is copied on my reply. Thank you. Best, Craig.”
Coratti has not replied.
Several days later Truthdig legal counsel sent a retraction demand to The Washington Post. In a letter dated Dec. 7, a lawyer for the Post replied, saying in part: “… we believe readers recognize that the Post itself was not making factual claims of any kind about each of more than 200 sites identified in PropOrNot’s research. …” The letter also said, “… it bears noting that the Article, on its face, did not purport to vouch for or corroborate the conclusions of the four research bodies whose work was mentioned. …”
Timberg, in his story, said he had communicated with 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 cowardly of the PropOrNot executive to point fingers at organizations and hurt their reputations without having the courage to identify herself or himself and take responsibility for the accusations.
In the Post article, Timberg said PropOrNot researchers used “Internet analytics tools to trace the origins of particular tweets and mapped the connections among social-media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages.” This bit of tech jargon did not give me the information I needed.I read and reread Glenn Greenwald’s and Ben Norton’s excellent critique of the Post story on The Intercept. That piece led me to two articles by Mathew Ingram on the Fortune website. One, published Nov. 25, the day after the Post story appeared, was under the headline “No, Russian Agents Are Not Behind Every Piece of Fake News You See.” The second, posted Nov. 28, was headlined “What a Map of the Fake-News Ecosystem Says About the Problem.” Ingram wrote about research by professor Jonathan Albright of Elon University in North Carolina, a pioneering expert in data collection who has worked for Google and Yahoo. Albright has created a map of how fake news stories spread from one site to another.
I interviewed Albright by phone. He told me that in his work he was looking for connections between right-wing websites. He had swept or “scraped” sites that he identified as right wing. Scraping, as described by the website Techopedia, “is a term for various methods used to collect information from across the Internet. Generally, this is done with software that simulates human Web surfing to collect specified bits of information from different websites.” It is similar to what intelligence agents sometimes do in analyzing emails.
Albright said he didn’t examine the content of the sites; he was interested in connections. PropOrNot, he said, in using a procedure apparently similar to his own, seemed to take the process a step further and look at content. That, I theorized, was how PropOrNot works, scraping sites in search of material that would fit its description of purveyors of Russian propaganda. Apparently, Truthdig and the other publications were caught up in a PropOrNot sweep.
In an email to PropOrNot, I asked whether this was the case.
PropOrNot replied, saying: “Jonathan Albright’s approach is similar to what we call our ‘automated analysis’ in our writing and website, although we use a few tricks he doesn’t and vice versa. It’s sort of like having an automated spam filter. However, unlike his approach, ours also includes a process of manual review to winnow what the automated collection processes catch. His list of 306 sites does not appear to have been systematically winnowed by anything like that.” The site called its manual review part of an “all-volunteer, ad-hoc, quick-turnaround strategy.”
I asked PropOrNot how Truthdig got on the list. In reply the group named a handful of stories it said had been “highlighted by our reviewers.”
The several articles it presented amounted to sparse evidence indeed.
The tiny list in the PropOrNot email was composed of articles that originated at Truthdig and articles reprinted by Truthdig from other sites. They included:
● A piece by David Swanson picked up by Truthdig from his Let’s Try Democracy blog. The article was titled “What’s Behind Time Magazine’s Putin Demonizing?” and it dissected a Time magazine story claiming Vladimir Putin was interfering with the recent U.S. election.
Swanson reaches the conclusion that “U.S. elections are almost completely unverifiable and do not even pretend to meet international standards. … Much voting is done on machines that simply must be trusted on faith. Whether they accurately count the votes entered is simply unknowable. …”
Swanson, a writer, a peace activist and a host of Talk Nation Radio, thus repeated criticism of a broken U.S. election system often voiced by academics, political leaders and journalists like myself.
● A Truthdig story posted by Truthdig Managing Editor Eric Ortiz. The Ortiz article concludes, “Julian Assange should be praised for having the guts to stand up to power and reveal how the sausage gets made in Washington, D.C. His journalism—and that is what WikiLeaks is doing—is a public service. …” That seems like fair comment to me. Generations of historians may use WikiLeaks as a source.
PropOrNot complained that the Ortiz item was linked by a site called New Cold War, which PropOrNot says is a Russian propaganda operation. But the New Cold War site also links to articles in Harper’s and The Guardian and to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s review in The New York Review of Books of a book by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.” In other words, PropOrNot bagged those two famous fellow travelers, Jerry Brown and William Perry, and a magazine not known as a Kremlin stooge, The New York Review of Books.
● A Truthdig piece by Scott Ritter, a noted author and disarmament expert. PropOrNot’s citing of this article is another flagrant example of the group’s poor analysis.
Ritter writes, “Today, the foreign policy playbook calls for confrontation, containment and isolation of Russia. This is a terrifying proposition. … President-elect Trump’s willingness to break with the foreign and national security establishment’s playbook, and seek to normalize relations with Russia, is a welcome development. The time for a genuine reset with Russia is long overdue, not just for old cold warriors like me, but for anyone who is vested in a better future for the U.S., Europe and the world.”
Argue with that. Self-identified as one of the “old cold warriors,” Ritter is now a peace advocate. He was a chief weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq, which he quit after seven years because of U.S. interference in the process. He was in the Marine Corps for 12 years as an intelligence specialist, retiring as a major, and served under Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War.
By including Ritter’s article as a reason for blacklisting Truthdig, PropOrNot showed that it effectively was targeting dissent and imposing a form of censorship on dissenters.
PropOrNot’s apparent intent is also shown by questions the site posed to me in response to my questions.
1) Do you assess that Putin’s Russia is a brutal authoritarian kleptocracy, which represses independent media at home, while using “fake news” as online propaganda abroad?
2) Do you assess that that poses a significant threat to our constitutional democracy?
3) Are you interested in genuinely constructive solutions for doing something about it? If you don’t like our all-volunteer, ad-hoc, quick-turnaround strategy, fine, but we’re interested in your thoughts and suggestions generally.
If we’re on the same page on the above, we’re on the same team.
No matter what my opinions are about Russia and Putin, I don’t want to be on that page, or play on the PropOrNot team.
When I read the PropOrNot questions I immediately thought of the Hollywood 10, the screenwriters and directors who went to jail because they refused to answer questions from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It sounded as if PropOrNot wanted me to be what was known to the committee as a “friendly witness,” bowing and scraping before self-appointed judges.
The Washington Post article, in addition to citing PropOrNot as a source, named Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He has been a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI special agent on a joint terrorism task force and the executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Watts and two colleagues, Andrew Weisburd and JM Berger, wrote a report, “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy,” which appeared in the online magazine War on the Rocks, specializing in national security. The article’s subheading was “Trump isn’t the end of Russia’s information war against America. They are just getting started.”
In surveying the blacklist, I couldn’t find a common denominator among the occupants. This was unexpected. The political positions of the websites ranged from the left to the far right. I contacted some of the organizations.
One was American Renaissance, and I spoke with its publisher, Jared Taylor, who told me his website is, in his words, “race realistic” and supports “white advocacy.” The American Renaissance website defines race realism as “a body of views that was so taken for granted it had no name, but it can be summarized as follows: That race is an important aspect of individual and group identity, that different races build different societies that reflect their natures, and that it is entirely normal for whites (or for people of any other race) to want to be the majority race in their own homeland. If whites permit themselves to become a minority population, they will lose their civilization, their heritage, and even their existence as a distinct people.”
When I spoke with him, Taylor said of his group, “We are considered alt-right.” I said it was odd that PropOrNot put Truthdig and American Renaissance on the same list, considering that the two organizations are far removed from each other on the political spectrum. Did American Renaissance take orders from the Kremlin? I ask Taylor. “Absolutely not,” he said. Was he surprised his group was on the list? “We’re flabbergasted,” he said. “We have no contact with the Russkies,” he said. “We are not foreign policy oriented at all,” although “we have a certain sympathy with Eastern European countries.”
I also talked to Filip Karinja, who runs the Hang The Bankers site, which has published articles saying the U.S. currency is declining and China’s is rising. “Congrats on making the list!” he wrote in an email to me. “Anyone that disagrees with US policy is instantly labeled an agent of Russia. It’s such poor propaganda.”
All News Pipeline, another list occupant, emailed me: “While enraged as well that such a list would be made, we also see it as a ‘badge of honor’. Almost all of our favorite websites are on that list, and it’s a group of people/websites that has totally exposed the mainstream media as the lying fools/tools they are. Fortunately, it hasn’t hurt us at all and has only exposed us to other people who like alternative news and had never heard of us before … that’s a win even if PropOrNot tried to make it a ‘loss’ for us. It’s been quite fun watching it all blow up in their faces, and that includes the Washington Post!”
I don’t find it funny. The PropOrNot blacklist case points to a grave danger that bogus systems of searches and classifications could pose—censorship. The threat of censorship has been increased by the furor over fake news. (One consumer of phony reports fired an assault weapon in a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor last week as he tried to find nonexistent abused children hidden there.)
Government censorship is one possibility. On Nov. 30 The Washington Post’s Timberg reported that members of Congress had “approved an initiative to track and combat foreign propaganda amid growing concerns that Russian efforts to spread ‘fake news’ and disinformation threaten U.S. national security.”
Another danger is censorship by the internet giants Facebook and Google. Using methods more sophisticated than those of PropOrNot, they could “scrape” entries on their websites and limit or remove those they think could get them in trouble with the government or bring them unwanted publicity.
Earlier this year, Facebook caused a controversy when it removed posts featuring Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s powerful 1972 picture of a naked, screaming child running from a napalm attack in Vietnam. Facebook deleted the shot from a Norwegian author’s page and later other pages. It said the photo violated Facebook’s rules on nudity. Faced with worldwide protests, the website reversed its decision.Professor Albright, the Elon University communications scholar, told me he feared such censorship. As he assembled his maps and charts of interconnected websites, he said, he saw how it could happen and be widespread.
He said, “Facebook is trying to develop a patent for a fake-news detection system. … It is turning into a form of censorship or could be developed as censorship.” He said he was concerned that Facebook, Google or the government could develop filters “to determine what is [supposedly] fake and make decisions about that.” They could hunt for particular words, sentences and ways the news is framed. Dissent could be filtered out, as could articles with unusual, non-mainstream slants. “There are going to be key words and language that will not be standard, and alternative voices will be buried,“ Albright said.
Were it not for The Washington Post, PropOrNot’s blacklist might have disappeared in the mass of fake news, odd notions, serious journalism, advertising and other material that both clutter the internet and make it a valuable source of information. What pulled PropOrNot from the obscurity it deserves was that pillar of mainstream journalism, now experiencing a resurgence thanks to its purchase by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
The most frightening aspect of all this is the likelihood that PropOrNot’s shady approach, after being abetted by the Post, will be adopted by others trying to suppress the dissent that makes Truthdig and similar sites so distinctive and valuable.
The search for fake news is becoming a witch hunt, accompanied by the rumors, smears and faulty investigations of the McCarthy era. Such is the state of the media in today’s world.