Last week, the Washington Post published an article titled, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” This recent claim regarding Russian propaganda and influence over this year’s US presidential election is only one in a slew of accusations against the Russians, both during and after the election cycle.
The following will lay out why this particular argument made by the Washington Post is so flawed and baseless, and why articles, websites, and papers that make false claims such as these are dangerous.
The main argument of this Washington Post piece is that:
“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.”
This is a very strong accusation, one that should be backed up by incriminating evidence. However, the evidence cited by the Washington Post is thin at best and potentially points to a very different propaganda scheme than one perpetrated by Russia.
Washington Post’s Evidence
The Washington Post article cites two major sources in exposing Russia’s supposed “increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery.”
An organization called PropOrNot communicated directly with the Washington Post regarding a list they compiled of news websites supposedly involved in a Russian propaganda scheme. PropOrNot calls itself “an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise.” This vague organization popped up in 2016 with the sole purpose of exposing Russian propaganda schemes.
The list contains a wide variety of websites, including many conservative websites such as the Drudge Report and Info Wars, but also listing liberal websites such as Mint Press News, progressive sites such as Truthdig, libertarian websites such as Ron Paul’s Liberty Report, and even seemingly unrelated websites such as NutritionFacts.org.
PropOrNot provides a vague description of its methodology in choosing which sites can be classified as Russian propaganda. Essentially, any time a website publishes content that PropOrNot has identified as a pro-Russia sentiment or theme, that is enough to tie that website to a Russian propaganda machine. PropOrNot does not claim that all of these organizations are knowingly working with Russia, but the others are guilty of being “useful idiots.”
RAND Corporation Research Paper
The second primary source used in the Washington Post article was a paper published by the RAND Corporation. The RAND Corporation is a think tank involved in a wide variety of fields, and “has played a somewhat mysterious role in U.S. public policy since its founding in 1946.” RAND has been involved in US-Russia relations since the Cold War when “the Air Force essentially dumped a truckload of money at RAND’s front door every year.”
This 11-page report appears to have been the primary source for the argument made by the Washington Post. This paper was sponsored by “...the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.”
Its primary argument is that Russia is conducting a “Firehose of Falsehood” propaganda model which has infiltrated the internet with its pro-Russia sentiment. The paper is highly theoretical and goes into great detail as to why online propaganda is effective. Sources to back up hard claims are lacking, and some are not properly cited, making them impossible to find -- not a good look for a government-funded research paper.
One of the major sources of evidence used by the RAND researchers was an interview with a man who claimed to be a former Russian troll tasked with flooding comment sections and message boards to meet strict daily quotas. However, infiltrating comment boards is much different than infiltrating hundreds of publications, as the Washington Post claims in its piece.
The RAND report claims that stories put out by Russian propagandists get picked up by other news organizations, leading to the so called “firehose of falsehood.” The few examples provided of false stories being picked up by the media were in other countries -- no concrete evidence was provided that this is happening in the US.The conclusion reached by the RAND researchers is that the US needs to “ncrease the flow of persuasive information and start to compete, seeking to generate effects that support U.S. and NATO objectives.” In other words, the US needs to step up its own propaganda game if we wish to compete against the flood of pro-Russia information.
It seems believable that Russian trolls exist in internet chat rooms and forums. It’s also believable that certain Russian-backed news sources would publish articles that are pro-Russia. However, the RAND report disguises itself as a research paper exposing a widespread Russian propaganda problem affecting US news, when really it is a general theoretical paper with a few unsubstantiated claims about the major prevalence of pro-Russia falsehoods in American media.
Claims that a widespread Russian propaganda scheme has infiltrated the media appear unfounded thus far. The sites listed in the PropOrNot list are of varying credibility.
Some of these sites may have contributed to the 'fake news' this election cycle. They are known for publishing sensationalistic and questionable material. This, however, should not be enough to tie them to any sort of overarching Russian scheme. By writing and reporting on online Russian aggressions without proper evidence to back up extreme claims, tensions will be created unnecessarily.
Ironically, the U.S. media and organizations publishing unfounded claims about Russia appear to be doing the exact thing they are accusing the Russians of. It would appear that interests exist in the U.S. who are intentionally pitting the US and Russia against each other, promoting a new form of McCarthyism for the modern online era.