Americans take for granted the right to communicate freely without interference. I know I do, but I believe it’s time to adopt a less laissez-faire attitude. Attempts to silence professors and independent voices on the internet are increasing, and worse, they’re being accepted without critical evaluation by Democrats who believe the conspiracy theory that the Kremlin helped elect Donald Trump.
ITEM 1 — Secretive website calls for Congress to investigate independent media for espionage
Over Thanksgiving the Washington Post published a widely scorned article by tech reporter Craig Timberg entitled “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” In its stunning revelation of Kremlin-generated “fake news,” the article cited the work of an anonymous website calling itself PropOrNot which urges the blacklisting of some 200 media sites and even calls for them to be brought before Congress and investigated for espionage. The group is also peddling a Chrome browser plug-in that will filter your news for you.
In a move that stunned journalists everywhere, Washington Post editors allowed Timberg to publish the piece using input only from the anonymous website (and supporters), failing to contact any of the smeared sites which include the award-winning Naked Capitalism, and left-leaning Truthout, and TruthDig. To excuse himself from any journalistic ethics while stoking fears of a Russian invasion, Timberg quotes a PropOrNot “director” as saying he doesn’t want to be identified because he’s frightened of being “hacked by Russia.,” and/or being assassinated like Jo Cox the British M.P. killed by a right-wing terrorist.
The gravity of this cannot be overstated. One of the country’s main papers of record smeared 200+ online publishers as “traitors” (calling for FBI and DOJ investigations), on the basis of an unarticulated theory put forth by an anonymous website. This move threatens the existence of independent progressive media organizations.
Even when PropOrNot deigns to provide a glimpse into their methodology, all you get is, “whether they even knew they were echoing Russian propaganda (does not matter) … if they meet these criteria (critical of US foreign policy, for example), they are at the very least acting as bona-fide ‘useful idiots’ of the Russian intelligence services, and are worthy of further scrutiny.” Americans old enough to live through the Cold War’s McCarthy-era all shuddered in unison. “Useful idiots” is a familiar smear designed to establish a presumption of guilt without evidence.
According to PropOrNot, dissent is evidence enough of Russian-sponsored information warfare. They overtly state that criticism of US foreign policy, specifically with regard to the Ukrainian resistance to Russia and Syrian resistance to Assad, is enough to prove a media voice is working in tandem with the Kremlin. Further, criteria for Russian propaganda includes “criticism of the United States, Barack Obama, Clinton, the European Union, Angela Merkel, NATO, Ukraine, ‘Jewish people,’ U.S. allies, the mainstream media, Democrats, and ‘the center-right or center-left, and moderates of all stripes.’”
By this measure the Washington Post should be on their list. For everyone else, stick to celebrity gossip and the weather if you hope to avoid being labeled a traitor.
PropOrNot asks for Google and Facebook to join them and BLOCK 200 publications from search engines and social media, a move which would put any progressive news organization out of business.
If your publication wound up on PropOrNot’s list, not to worry though! You can appeal directly to the nameless and faceless patriots behind PropOrNot, and they’ll consider removing you. I’m sure they will be totally fair, and will in no way accept large cash donations in exchange for having your record expunged.
Since the story broke it’s been pushed by heartbroken Clinton campaign associates looking for a Russian answer to their lousy election results. The dangerous irony is they’re tearing down the Fourth Estate’s check on power at the very moment when a neo-fascist wannabe-dictator is taking control of the White House and the nuclear football. They’re empowering their own political opponents to label future examination as terrorism, using the flaccid excuse that American Democracy depends on censoring the free press and internet.
Remember too, that the new owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos (as majority owner of Amazon) is also overseeing the contract for all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies’ move to the cloud. With such high stakes, Bezos and the Washington Post are not neutral players in the field of government oversight. Nor does the Washington Post have a clean record with regard to past intelligence interference in content.
ITEM 2 — World leaders rollout “fake news” hysteria prior to PropOrNot launch
Unsurprisingly, so-called real news is uncritically parroting the propaganda. After three full days of trending controversy, Maddowblog also promoted PropOrNot as a useful tool for identifying traitorous bloggers. After four days Slate did the same. Useful tools, indeed.
But who could blame them when the President himself was out catapulting the propaganda. Prior to the Post article, on November 17, President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel concern-trolled independent media, with Merkel floating the notion that perhaps it’s time to regulate bloggers. It’s important to note that these leaders took to the media with this message BEFORE the Washington Post story broke, because PropOrNot claims that the “US government” is “aware” of their activity, and they intimate that the USG tacitly approves—as if they’re working together.
Judging from the comments of President Obama and Angela Merkel I have no reason to doubt this. Here’s Merkel on November 23, one day before the Washington Post story: “Something has changed — as globalization has marched on, (political) debate is taking place in a completely new media environment. Opinions aren’t formed the way they were 25 years ago,” she said.
Quoted by France 24, she sounded the alarm: ”Today we have fake sites, bots, trolls — things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with certain algorithms and we have to learn to deal with them.” The chancellor said the challenge for democrats was to “reach and inspire people. However, should that fail, Merkel essentially suggested the time for censorship has come: “we must confront this phenomenon and if necessary, regulate it.”
While Obama and Merkel are calling for the regulation of free speech on the internet, President-elect Trump has long wished to shut down American’s access to “parts of the internet.” On December 8, 2015 in a speech at the U.S.S. Yorktown in South Carolina, he suggested that Bill Gates should help the country shut off parts of the internet. “We’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet,” Trump said. “We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.”
There was a time when leaders floating such undemocratic ideas would receive a speedy rebuke by U.S. Presidents because this is what totalitarian governments do.
PropOrNot has advice for those wishing to avoid getting caught up in a Russian espionage dragnet: simply curtail your media consumption to mainstream outlets such as MSNBC and the Washington Post (they would NEVER mislead you by normalizing Donald Trump or propagating lies about WMDs in Iraq).
Stick to the narrative and no one gets hurt.
And accept the fact that the mainstream narrative in the era of Trump to include information on DAPL, tax havens, living wages and less of benefit to working Americans, people of color, immigrants or the LGBTQ community.
If these leaders were seriously concerned about Americans not getting enough high quality news, then the answer is to cultivate MORE independent media organizations, not put the ones we have out of business.
We currently have a monopoly on news distribution, the likes of which this country has never seen. Just six corporations own all the major news sources — and that’s not six MEDIA corporations. That’s six industries with interests that include military spending. According to one estimate, just 232 media executives control the messages that 277 million people rely on to understand our world. This results in a full 80 percent of radio programming being homogenous. So, 90 percent of what Americans see, hear and read is totally controlled by big media, and that’s not good enough for them.
Now they want to shut down indie progressive sites too.
ITEM 3 — Intelligence, government entities behind censorship moves?
Who exactly is PropOrNot? A review of their 3-month old Twitter account reveals the kind of tweets you might expect were geared to a Howard Stern audience. Here’s one: Updated report here: https://t.co/mcAZDtwirx Russian imperialists & bots/trolls are vewwy vewwy upset; we’re stoked! #Путінхуйло 🇺🇸🇪🇺🇺🇦 — @propornot
Here’s another that tellingly features a common Ukrainian fascist salute:
Here’s the always on-point Mark Ames providing background on the 1940-era fascist salute used by PropOrNot:
This story isn’t just about free speech and the internet. It’s about foreign policy, and that’s what makes it especially frightening, and especially troubling because it appears that ex-military internet trolls have been given access to influence policy leaders and distribute propaganda within the U.S. using the one of our premier newspapers of record.
The same day the Washington Post published their story, a Facebook friend posted a list of “fascism fighting tactics,” penned by Yale historian and Holocaust expert Timothy Snyder. This list included “Investigate…Spend more time with long articles … bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.”
As I like to investigate and figure things out for myself, I went to investigate PropOrNot. At this point I was unaware of the WaPo story. The first thing I found was there’s no Whois contact for PropOrNot, and no “about us” that shows ownership. However, in their introductory post they say that they need to thank a lot of people who wish to remain anonymous, and that their ALLIES blogroll contains some of those associated the effort. Off I went to through the list to examine the closest associations.
I wasn’t the only one. The WaPo article had exploded on Twitter, and a number of journalists were sounding the alarm. That afternoon Max Blumenthal published at Alternet, writing, “Among the websites listed by PropOrNot as “allies” are a number of groups funded by the U.S. government or NATO. They include InterpreterMag, an anti-Russian media monitoring blog funded through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty…which is edited by the hardline neoconservative Michael Weiss.”
In my research I found that another ally is Center for European Policy Analysis, or CEPA, which runs what it calls the “Information Warfare Initiative.” CEPA’s leadership is tied to The Legatum Institute, which aims to help policymakers advance transatlantic efforts counter Russian disinformation in the Eastern Europe.
ITEM 4 — PropOrNot: agents for Ukraine?
With regards to Ukraine, there is a second affiliation worth mentioning, as pointed out by award-winning investigative reporter Dave Lindorff at the blacklist Counterpunch. He noticed that while all entities associated with the website are hidden behind a veil of secrecy, one name slipped through. Joel Harding reviewed some of the accused Russian material published on PropOrNot that was used to “agnostically” prove Russian influence. Check out Lindorff’s piece: “Confessions of an Alleged ‘Russian Propagandist’: A Pentagon Hit?”
Additionally, according to George Eliason at globalresearch.ca, Ukraine’s “king troll,” Joel Harding is a former military intelligence officer who currently promotes himself via his website ToInformIsToInfluence.com as a specialist in “Inform and Influence Operations,” (IIO), which is military jargon for information warfare focused on psychological operations and military deception.
Harding writes that to combat Russia he looks for those taking “active measures,” which in the context of information warfare is anyone writing favorably for a military/intelligence opponent. Chillingly, he asserts that these people are (knowingly or unknowingly) engaged in terrorist acts that are just short of a hot war. According to one analyst, Inform and Influence operations likely targeted Rep. Alan Grayson after his opposition to intervening in Syria and Ukraine.
Writing for the New Yorker, Adrian Chen reports that PropOrNot reached out to him in late October on the suggestion of Sen. Ron Wyden’s office. Wyden staffer Keith Chu said that an ex-State Department employee and an I.T. researcher on the PropOrNot team had requested Wyden’s help. Staffers directed PropOrNot on press strategy and told Chen, “There has been bipartisan interest in these kind of Russian efforts…for some time now, including from Senator Wyden. Just this week, Chen also reports that Wyden teamed up with six other Senators from the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees on a letter to the White House asking to declassify information regarding Russian interference in the election.
Indeed the prospect of foreign meddling in U.S. elections warrants examination, but calling for an internet blockade of independent media by shunting Google and Facebook access for more than 200 websites is a move that would make Putin blush.
A shady, anonymous group to attacking internet freedom in the hope of silencing dissenting opinion or inconvenient reporting, is the very definition of anti-Democratic. It’s time for the Washington Post to be accountable as a “paper of record,” and either reveal who is behind this attack, or retract their story and apologize. As a Facebook commenter said, “Can Washington Post provide a blacklist of politicians taking big bucks from corporations and foreign entities?” That’s what “real journalism” used to do, and if they were still in that business, chances are there would be no such thing as a “fake news” crisis.
I won’t hold my breath waiting for the Washington Post to come around. But in the meantime I will continue to follow this story, so PropOrNot might as well add my name to their list of ill-repute.
POSTSCRIPT: Here’s what Jeff Bezos has to say about the importance of freedom of speech, as reported in Vanity Fair on November 30, five days after the PropOrNot story broke in his paper. If he truly believed this he would take responsibility and retract the PropOrNot story — and devote resources to promote the work of the writers smeared by his publication.
More reading on Russian propaganda, PropOrNot:
The ‘Washington Post’ ‘Blacklist’ Story Is Shameful and Disgusting: The capital’s paper of record crashes legacy media on an iceberg
Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi
According to PropOrNot’s criteria, WaPo is a U.S. Intelligence outlet
Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group
The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton
Look closer to home: Russian propaganda depends on the American structure of social media
Bait & Switch- Fake News, propornot, the Real Inform & Influence Operation
George Eliason, American reporter in Ukraine