One of the themes that has emerged during the controversy over "fake news" and its role in the election of Donald Trump is the idea that Russian agents of various kinds helped hack the process by fueling this barrage of false news. But is that really true?
In a recent story, the Washington Post says that this is definitely the case, based on information provided by two groups of what the paper calls "independent researchers." But the case starts to come apart at the seams the more you look at it.
One group is associated with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank known for its generally hawkish stance on relations between the U.S. and Russia, which says it has been researching Russian propaganda since 2014.
The second group is something called PropOrNot, about which very little is known. Its website doesn't name anyone who is associated with it, including the researchers who worked on the report. And the Post doesn't name the group's executive director, whom it quotes, because it says he is afraid of "being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers."
PropOrNot's Twitter (twtr) account, which tweets and retweets anti-Russian sentiments from a variety of sources, has only existed since August of this year. And an article announcing the launch of the group on its website is dated last month.
According to the description, PropOrNot includes an unidentified number of "concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including professional experience in computer science, statistics, public policy, and national security affairs."
The group has a web-browser plug-in that is supposed to highlight sources of Russian propaganda online, but a number of observers on Twitter noted that this blacklist of sites includes several legitimate left-wing sites such as CounterPunch and Truth Out.
A number of the "allies" that PropOrNot lists on its website—including the investigative blogger Eliot Higgins, who runs a research entity called BellingCat that has used crowdsourcing to track Russian government activity in Ukraine—said they have never heard of the group.
And what about the evidence of this orchestrated Russian intelligence effort to hack the outcome of the American election? Much of it seems flimsy at best.
The researchers with the Foreign Policy Research Institute recently published a report entitled "Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy." The article describes a network of social-media accounts the authors say are being used by Russian agents to sow discord and "destroy Americans’ confidence in their system of government."
Accounts run by or associated with Russia Today, Sputnik and other state-controlled entities are a fairly obvious source of this kind of thing. But it's the attempt to broaden this into a nefarious global scheme that weakens the group's argument.
For example, the article refers to what it calls "useful idiots" as being part of this campaign, a group that includes any social-media accounts which "regurgitate Russian themes and 'facts' without necessarily taking direction from Russia, or collaborating in a fully informed manner."
The problem with this description is that it could theoretically include anyone on any social-media platform who shares news based on a click-bait headline. The PropOrNot article, which the Post said it was given prior to publication, reportedly says the Russian campaign worked by "harnessing the online world’s fascination with 'buzzy' content that is surprising and emotionally potent, and tracks with popular conspiracy theories."
As we know, this describes millions of people who use Twitter and Facebook (fb). Are they part of the problem? Clearly. Are they Russian dupes? That seems like a stretch. What the report seems to be saying is that Russia took advantage of the social web's desire to just share things without reading them. It may be true, but so does every other media outlet.
There's also little data available on the PropOrNot report, which describes a network of 200 sites who it says are "routine peddlers of Russian propaganda," which have what it calls a "combined audience of 15 million Americans." How is that audience measured? We don't know. Stories promoted by this network were shared 213 million times, it says. How do we know this? That's unclear.
That number is almost certainly inflated by the inclusion of The Drudge Report, a right-wing aggregator that is also one of the most popular websites in the world, with an estimated 1.5 billion monthly pageviews, which puts it ahead of both Yahoo News (yhoo) and Google News (googl).
In effect, both of these groups want to portray anyone who shared a salacious but untrue news story about Hillary Clinton as an agent of an orchestrated Russian intelligence campaign.
Has the rise of fake news played into the hands of those who want to spread disinformation? Sure it has. But connecting hundreds of Twitter accounts into a dark web of Russian-controlled agents, along with any website that sits on some poorly thought-out blacklist, seems like the beginnings of a conspiracy theory, rather than a scientific analysis of the problem.
Clarification, Nov. 28, 2016: An earlier version of this story mis-characterized the Foreign Policy Research Institute as being proponents of the Cold War.