Lots has been written about “fake news” in the U.S. election cycle, often tinted by the idea that much of it was the creation of money-grubbing, unethical loners exploiting people’s political leanings for a quick buck. But at least some of the false news that spread in the last few months of the campaign appears to have had much more serious geopolitical implications and was spread thanks to “a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign,” reports the Washington Post, which cites two recent expert reports on the issue.
The campaign, which included thousands of botnets, a network of propaganda-friendly sites and social media accounts, relied on U.S.-made technology platforms to essentially attack U.S. democracy and make Americans question the trustworthiness of their voting system. Among the claims that were pushed by the propaganda efforts there was a particular focus on Hillary Clinton’s supposedly declining health, the supposed payment of anti-Trump protesters, and lots of efforts at pushing the storyline that the election was “rigged,” as Trump often claimed during the campaign.
Although eroding faith in American democracy has long been one of the top goals of the Kremlin since the Cold War days, this has suddenly become a lot easier in the social media era. “They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests,” said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has tracked Russian propaganda for years. “This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media.”
Before, the propaganda efforts had to rely on actual people and organizations. Now Moscow can directly target those they know are eager to believe what they’re selling. “During the Cold War, gray measures used semi-covert Communist parties, friendship societies, and non-governmental organizations to engage in party-to-party and people-to-people campaigns. Today, gray measures on social media include conspiracy websites, data dump websites, and seemingly credible news aggregators that amplify disinformation and misinformation,” write Watts, Andrew Weisburd and JM Berger in a paper that is one of the sources the Post uses for its story.
The Post also got an advanced look at a report by a group called PropOrNot that is dedicated to identifying Russian propaganda online. The report “identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans,” reports the Post. “On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.”
Many have raised questions about the list though, which includes several popular sites such as the Drudge Report. And they’re not all sites popular with the right wing either. PropOrNot lists several left-leaning sites, including Truthout and Black Agenda Report. The group has released a Google Chrome extension to help users identify these sites while browsing the web.