The feverish coverage of “fake news”, or propaganda and disinformation spread in order to manipulate public perception, and its alleged impact on the U.S presidential election has given rise to at least one elusive blacklist which features hundreds of websites and publications, all of whom fall prey to one common accusation, that they either willingly or unwillingly serve Russian interests by peddling propaganda targeting U.S audiences. Meet PropOrNot, the new McCarthyism—this time at the touch of a screen.
Last week the Washington Post ran a story on Russia’s “sophisticated propaganda machinery” and an anonymous website organized by “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy military and technology backgrounds” calling itself PropOrNot. This “nonpartisan collection” claims to have identified hundreds of websites, which it’s compiled into a handy list, who are doing Russia’s dirty propaganda work. Offering readers no names, the Post goes on to refer to the group as “researchers” who claim that the Russian campaign during the U.S. presidential election “worked by harnessing the online world’s fascination with “buzzy” content that is surprising and emotionally potent, and tracks with popular conspiracy theories about how secret forces dictate world events.”
The story made waves, prompting former Senior Adviser of strategy and communications to Obama, Daniel Pfeiffer, to tweet “why isn’t this the biggest story in the world right now?” But as Adrian Chen, staff writer at The New Yorker, vigorously argues the methodology used by PropOrNot is troubling because, among other things, the accusation of being a mouthpiece for the Russian government is broad in its application.
“PropOrNot claims to be uninterested in differentiating between organizations that are explicit tools of the Russian state and so-called “useful idiots,” which echo Russian propaganda out of sincerely held beliefs. “We focus on behavior, not motivation,” they write. To PropOrNot, simply exhibiting a pattern of beliefs outside the political mainstream is enough to risk being labeled a Russian propagandist,” Chen writes.
Some of the websites listed by PropOrNot include Truthout, Black Agenda Report, and Truthdig, publications which are invaluable sources of hard-hitting, left analysis. Mondoweiss spoke to Joe Macaré, publisher at one of the websites targeted by PropOrNot’s blacklist, Truthout.
Despite being alarming, it wasn’t news that Truthout was smeared as a propaganda outfit, Macaré says. “Four years ago, we were seeing some people complain Truthout was doing Mitt Romney’s work by publishing reports on or criticism of Barack Obama’s policies, while others simultaneously accused us of being in Obama’s pocket because we did the same to Mitt Romney and other Republicans. So inevitably, in the course of the past year or so we have been accused of being de facto agents for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. This is a damning symptom of a media and political culture in which it’s an unfamiliar and strange idea that a genuinely independent publication might hold all candidates and parties to account.”
Macaré argues that there’s now a clear sign of escalation when the Washington Post is feeding into a narrative that labels Truthout and other independent publications are “echoing Russian propaganda”. He says that “the prospect of a future in which both the Trump administration and its critics are smearing independent journalism is a grim one.”
“PropOrNot’s criteria as listed on their site are so broad that it tips their hand and makes clear how absurd their allegations are: They basically state that if an outlet has ever criticized the US government, NATO or the EU, “the center-right or center-left,” or the mainstream media, then they too may be an unwitting stooge for the FSB. We have written to PropOrNot not only demanding that they remove Truthout from this list, but also condemning these criteria and the project as a whole as it stands — and we are in discussion with other members of the independent media about how to push back more broadly against attacks like these. We’re confident that Truthout‘s credibility remains beyond reproach, and we’re heartened by the number of people who’ve said so.”
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, tells Mondoweiss that the Washington Post’s spurious article profiling PropOrNot “demonstrates the irresponsibility of the mainstream media”. The article not only indicated the Washington Post’s “clear agenda to discredit independent media” but made it apparent that “they are trying to undermine media that doesn’t function as a government mouthpiece”. And nowhere is it more important to have independent reporting than on Palestine, Abunimah argued. On the subject of publications targeted by PropOrNot’s blacklist, Abunimah noted that it is “particularly despicable” that Black Agenda Report was included, pointing out that their radical Black analysis is not only necessary but unparalleled, especially in their unwavering of opposition to mainstream political discourse. Abunimah said that we must stand in solidarity with publications like Black Agenda Report, now more than ever.
For his piece in The New Yorker Chen spoke to someone at PropOrNot and given the many incoherent statements his anonymous source gave him it’s clear this McCarthyist project is a bumbling one, though it is certainly a threat to independent media all the same. The website’s anonymous “researchers” have even called for the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate those blacklisted as they suspect “some of the individuals involved have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws…” The complete lack of transparency while peddling Russian panic is not lost on anyone.
“The story of PropOrNot,”, Chen writes, “should serve as a cautionary tale to those who fixate on malignant digital influences as a primary explanation for Trump’s stunning election.” Unable to cope with a loss that was steeped in, among other things, Hillary Clinton’s own floundering campaign, one which offered little to those most in need, many are reaching for anything else to blame, in this case the Russian bogeyman. The rise of projects like PropOrNot means that alternative media outlets must struggle even more than they already do to survive while combating establishment media narratives. The new McCarthyism is here, and independent media is even more necessary now.