A secretive group, trumpeted by the Washington Post and other outlets, that fingered 200 websites as purveyors of "fake news" and "Russian propaganda" has itself been accused of ethical lapses and unverified methodologies.
Decrying an “epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year,” said former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a speech on Capitol Hill this past week. Clinton cited PropOrNot.com, an anonymous group that targets "fake news" producers.
Virtually all of the 200 groups identified by PropOrNot.com are center-right organizations that either supported Clinton's rival, Donald J. Trump, or stayed silent on presidential race.
PropOrNot.com soared to public attention following a Nov. 24 Washington Post article, in which the group claimed to have a secret method for discovering "fake news" sites and "Russian propaganda" mouthpieces.
Since that article was published, the Washington Post added an editor’s note to the article clarifying its position on PropOrNot.
“The Post, which did not name any of the sites (on the list), does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so,” the editor’s note said. “Since publication of The Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list.”
The list includes Russia’s established or semi-official news outlets, such as RT.com, SputnikNews.com and Russia-Insider.com. It also includes sites that are focused on reporting issues not well covered by mainstream news outlets, such as TruthDig.com, which was founded by journalist Robert Scheer and publisher Zuade Kaufman.
Fairness and Accuracy in Media, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit media watch group, faulted PropOrNot’s lack of explanation on how it calculated that planted propaganda stories were viewed 213 million times by Americans.
“Increasingly, as the moral panic surrounding ‘fake news’ reaches fever pitch, the standards of skepticism and sourcing employed by some of our most trusted news sources have inversely sunk to tabloid levels,” wrote Adam Johnson, an analyst for FAIR.
The list of 200 websites is akin to a blacklist, according to FAIR.
Fake news spread online has become a huge problem, said a professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, Philip Seib, but the approach of PropOrNot simply muddies the debate. “PropOrNot and other such groups are not helpful if they are not transparent,” Seib told AMI Newswire. “When news organizations rely on anonymous sources such as this, it just opens the door to news manipulations. Authenticity and transparency go hand in hand, as do duplicity and anonymity.”
When journalists allow sources to hide behind a wall of anonymity, he said, those sources are given license to do all kinds of mischief. “It’s really nothing new,” Seib said. “It’s just dressed up here in cyber attire.”
Although the Post didn’t mention any of the websites on the list of 200, it did provide a link to the list. In response, an attorney for one of the listed sites – NakedCapitalism.com – sent a letter to the Post demanding a retraction. It said the story contains "extremely damaging false allegations constituting defamation," while asserting, "You did not provide even a single example of 'fake news' allegedly distributed or promoted by Naked Capitalism or indeed any of the 200 sites on the PropOrNot blacklist."
The Post responded to the letter by stating that it had made no assertions about the websites. It had written "a news story about the work of several independent researchers."
PropOrNot has identified certain common characteristics among the 200 websites on its list. Among them are efforts to promote conspiracy theories about U.S. military exercises, support for U.S. isolationist policies, support for Brexit, opposition to Syrian rebels and Ukraine resistance and opposition to spraying to fight the Zika virus.
“We do not publicly describe all our sources and methods, although we describe most of them,” the group says on its website. “… We can in some cases provide much more detail to journalists and other researchers in order to contextualize their reporting.”
A request for information by AMI Newswire to PropOrNot’s email address went unanswered.
U.S. experts on the topic of Russian propaganda, however, back up PropOrNot’s warnings about fake news and its possible effects on U.S. elections.
“These efforts seek to produce a divided electorate and a president with no clear mandate to govern,” said a recent report by cyber security experts. “The ultimate objective is to diminish and tarnish American democracy. Unfortunately, that effort is going very well indeed.”
The report was authored by Andrew Weisburd and Clint Watts of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and author and analyst J.M. Berger.
Incidents of the former Soviet Union planting fake news stories and propaganda in news outlets around the world occurred throughout the Cold War. “It’s not a new problem,” said Seib of USC, “but it’s a problem that has become more severe because technology makes it more difficult to determine the source.”
But those on the PropOrNot list said the real issue is not America's relationship with Russia but the mainstream media's fears about new competition. Ron Unz, who produces the website Unz.com, another website on the list, took a less confrontational line.
“This silly flap in which the pillars of the establishment media … denounced their less establishmentarian rivals as 'fake' relates to the exact reason that I had originally launched this small webzine, hoping to make it a convenient venue for those important and controversial ideas largely excluded from mainstream coverage" said Unz in a post on his website.