School’s out for summer, and corporate media are eager to enter their junior year of the Russiagate conspiracy, despite its utter obliteration by Robert Mueller in April. Perhaps some journalists have taken to heart the tips several Russiagate skeptics offered to the media via FAIR on how to avoid further erosion of their credibility,  but the New York Times’ June 29 exclusive is a sign that not all in the media are ready to let go of Russophobic concern-trolling about Putin “sowing discord” among the left with “disinformation.”

This time, however, the sneaky culprit isn’t Russian. His tactics are merely “Russian-style.”

In “Trump Consultant Is Trolling Democrats With Biden Site That Isn’t Biden’s,” the Times revealed that Patrick Mauldin, a Trump re-election media consultant and founder of the Republican consulting firm Vici Media Group, was the independent creator of the parody Joe Biden 2020 campaign website, which appeared as one of the first results on various iterations of Google searches for the presidential hopeful—though sometimes below a paid ad for Biden’s legitimate site. Prior to the Times story, the owner of the website, which states at the bottom that it is “political commentary and parody of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign website,” was anonymous. The page only states:

It is not paid for by any candidate, committee, organization or PAC. It is a project BY AN American citizen FOR American citizens. Self-Funded.

The satirical webpage features animated GIFs of Biden’s inappropriate behavior with women and girls, and mocks his “legislative accomplishments,” highlighting among other things his vote against gay marriage in 1996, his authorship of the notorious 1994 crime bill that fueled mass incarceration, and his crusade against school desegregation in the 1970s, for which he recently came under fire from Kamala Harris in the first 2020 Democratic Primary debate.

The Times describes the site as “a slick little piece of disinformation,” but each of the hyperlink citations attached to his political record listed above are featured in that section of Mauldin’s website. See for yourself if Biden didn’t champion the Iraq War, didn’t vote for states’ rights to overturn Roe v. Wade, or didn’t help escalate the war on drugs.

While the presentation of Biden’s positions is perhaps decontextualized, and some of his views have changed—though fighting alongside segregationists for segregation is pretty hard to forgive in any context—nothing on appears to be factually incorrect.

The hook, of course, is Russia. The Times’ featured image caption reads:

Armed with bogus websites that mock leading candidates, a Trump campaign worker is exploiting tensions on the left with Russian-style disinformation.

Continuing the thriller, the piece’s author, Matthew Rosenberg, writes:

Yet in anonymously trying to exploit the fissures within the Democratic ranks — fissures that ran through this past week’s debates — Mr. Mauldin’s website hews far closer to the disinformation spread by Russian trolls in 2016 than typical political messaging. With nothing to indicate its creator’s motives or employer, the website offers a preview of what election experts and national security officials say Americans can expect to be bombarded with for the next year and a half: anonymous and hard-to-trace digital messaging spread by sophisticated political operatives whose aim is to sow discord through deceit. Trolling, that is, as a political strategy.

Rosenberg perfectly executes the Russiagate article recipe: adopt sensational language like “armed,” “sow discord” and “deceit”; fall back on unnamed “experts” to ramp up an alleged threat; use an espionage-evoking word like “operative”; resuscitate the 2016 election trigger word “troll”; and imply the useful idiocy of what corporate media tend to call the “far left”—Rosenberg opens the report by coloring Mauldin’s depiction of Biden as “in terms that would warm the heart of any Bernie Sanders supporter” (but surprise! It was a Trump staffer!). It only takes 11 more paragraphs for the Times to mention that Mauldin also created less effective parody sites for SandersElizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

Putin and any actual Russian involvement are the missing cherries on top. But the damage is done when the association is made. The result is a story that whitewashes a conservative Democrat’s unpopular record. Sound familiar?

It’s important to remember that the so-called Russian Pearl Harbor of our (otherwise ostensibly unmanipulated) social media, as journalist Aaron Maté pointed out before and after the release of the Mueller Report (The Nation, 12/28/18; RealClearInvestigations, 7/5/19), was a dud. The Mueller-indicted Russian clickbait firm whose “disinformation” the Times references—the Internet Research Agency (IRA)—produced mostly non-election content, its scale was minor, its budget was negligible, and its sophistication was … well, unsophisticated. The kicker is it’s not entirely clear the IRA was connected to the Russian government.

Using the same term used to hype the IRA’s vapid memes (NBC News, 12/17/18), the Times described as “sophisticated” Mauldin’s entirely routine buying a web domain, designing a fairly simple webpage, promoting it on Reddit and making T-shirts. You can go make your own website on WordPress with a first-year-free domain name for $5 a month. On the topic of Mauldin’s “digital know-how,” Rosenberg emphasizes that

he also appears to be very much on point in his choice of targets: Mr. Biden is the Democrat polling strongest against Mr. Trump and has been repeatedly singled out on Twitter by the president.

Mocking a frontrunner by pointing out his unpopular political history: ingenious strategy, indeed.

The web analytics firm SimilarWeb says that the fake website had 390,000 unique visitors through the end of May, 80,000 more than Biden’s actual website. It’s definitely problematic that search engines were directing more people to the Trump consultant–made faux site than to the real one. But the serious questions are: What was its impact, and is it worth such a blockbuster, front-page upset?

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch is the one who fed media the uncheckable yet widely reported estimate of people who mayhave seen IRA content: 126 million. He also said this figure comprises 0.004 percent of content on people’s newsfeed. To put it in perspective, Stretch said, if its platform was TV rather than Facebook, “you’d have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from the IRA.” The scary figure the Times is pushing—the fake Biden site’s 390,000 visitors—is less than a third of a percent of the not-particularly-pervasive 126 million.

Lacking evidence that will actually affect voter turnout, Rosenberg invokes a study by Tovo Labs, an adtech firm for Democrats, that brags that the company suppressed moderate and conservative Republican turnout in Alabama’s 2017 special Senate election by 2.5 and 4.4 percent, respectively. The Times suggests that Mauldin’s satirical Biden website utilizes a similar divide and suppress strategy, although Tovo ran a much more complex and explicitly manipulative targeted-ad campaign. Republicans were served ads that took them to a website encouraging them to write-in a candidate other than Roy Moore, the far-right contender. Other ads brought them to a curated site with articles opposing Moore by religious and conservative figures.

In other words, Tovo, which boasts on its website “dynamic content, AI and the world’s best adtech to supercharge progressive campaigns and deliver persuasion and action at an unprecedented scale,” went far beyond Mauldin’s laughably fake campaign website. It’s a fear-mongering comparison between apples and oranges.

Just as corporate media sought to distract their audience from the significant failures of their preferred Democratic candidate in 2016 with a collusion narrative that was baloney from the beginning, the Times wants you to be scared of anything and everything except Biden’s actual policy record.

The Russiagate trope allows media to get away with feebly calling the inconvenient facts on “less-than perfect moments” (Daily Beast6/29/19), “unfavorable policy positions” (Newsweek6/29/19), “policies that might not be seen as liberal today” (The Hill, 6/29/19). In the end, the label the Biden campaign hopes you’ll apply  is the Russia-tinged one the Times  (6/29/19) supplies: “disinformation.”

Alan MacLeod (FAIR.org7/27/18) astutely characterized the utility of Russiagate after the 2016 election:

For the Democrats, Russiagate allows them to ignore calls for change and not scrutinize why they lost to the most unpopular presidential candidate in history. Since Russia hacked the election, there is no need for introspection, and certainly no need to accommodate the Sanders wing or to engage with progressive challenges from activists on the left, who are Putin’s puppets anyway. The party can continue on the same course, painting over the deep cracks in American society.

As media continue to evince bias against the more progressive ideas and 2020 candidates in the Democratic Party, this Times exclusive smells like Biden-loss excuse preparation. What better seasoning than Russian-style disinformation?

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