A viral Washington Post story breathlessly circulated by media mandarins condemning the influence of “fake news” on the U.S. presidential election turns out to have been… fake news. The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen has published a devastating takedown of the key source in the Washington Post piece, an anonymous group called PropOrNot, which supplied the explosive claim that “stories planted or promoted by the [Russian] disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.” Chen:
A close look at the report showed that it was a mess. “To be honest, it looks like a pretty amateur attempt,” Eliot Higgins, a well-respected researcher who has investigated Russian fake-news stories on his Web site, Bellingcat, for years, told me. “I think it should have never been an article on any news site of any note.”
The most striking issue is the overly broad criteria used to identify which outlets spread propaganda. According to PropOrNot’s recounting of its methodology, the third step it uses is to check if a site has a history of “generally echoing the Russian propaganda ‘line’,” which includes praise for Putin, Trump, Bashar al-Assad, Syria, Iran, China, and “radical political parties in the US and Europe.” When not praising, 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.”
These criteria, of course, could include not only Russian state-controlled media organizations, such as Russia Today, but nearly every news outlet in the world, including the Post itself. […]
To PropOrNot, simply exhibiting a pattern of beliefs outside the political mainstream is enough to risk being labelled a Russian propagandist. Indeed, the list of “propaganda outlets” has included respected left-leaning publications like CounterPunch and Truthdig, as well as the right-wing behemoth Drudge Report. The list is so broad that it can reveal absolutely nothing about the structure or pervasiveness of Russian propaganda.
This takedown—and you really ought to read the whole thing—doesn’t just come from some no-name journalist out to build a contrarian name for himself. Chen is an authority on the subject. He was the author of the widely cited and scrupulously researched exposé that appeared in the New York Times last June showing that much of the internet’s trolling activity was emanating from one office building in St. Petersburg, Russia.
At the end of the piece, Chen twists the knife: “Like the most effective Russian propaganda, the report weaved together truth and misinformation.” That it was shared and promoted so enthusiastically by the very same people pronouncing most loudly that Trump supporters had been duped by phony news stories on a large scale underscores the fact that everyone, including those who consider themselves thoughtful and well-educated, is vulnerable to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.
The anti-Trump political establishment has good reason to be concerned about the campaign that just occurred, which included no shortage of paranoia, conspiracy theorizing, and norm-breaking. But the worst thing that it could do is discredit itself further by falling prey to these same temptations.