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Investigation Into ‘PropOrNot Blacklist Case’ Finds Shoddy Methods and an Ominous Potential

Posted on Dec 15, 2016

By Bill Boyarsky

  Traditional Russian wooden dolls in a Moscow shop. (Pavel Golovkin / AP)

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Editor’s note: This investigation of the “PropOrNot blacklist case” was conducted independently by political reporter Bill Boyarsky. It underwent routine editing. Boyarsky is a Truthdig columnist, a former city editor of the Los Angeles Times, the author of several books, a former lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and a former member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

If you believe the shadowy organization PropOrNot—a subject of a recent article in The Washington Post—I’m a Russian intelligence agent or a “useful idiot.” Maybe a violator of the Espionage Act and the Foreign Agent Registration Act. PropOrNot also thinks I should be investigated by the FBI and the Justice Department.

It’s not because I have a Russian surname, Boyarsky. It’s because I write for Truthdig, one of more than 200 websites named in a study by PropOrNot, short for Propaganda Or Not. The sites, the study said, were pro-Russian, either intentionally or by being stupid enough to be tools of the Kremlin.

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PropOrNot’s study was released in November. It might have vanished without much notice, but The Washington Post reported on it. With that boost from a big name, the study exploded across the internet.

The Post story, by Craig Timberg, appeared Nov. 24 under the headline “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during the election, experts say.” Timberg wrote that the goal of the propaganda effort, according to “independent researchers who have tracked the operation,” was “punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.” [On Dec. 7 the Post placed an editor’s note at the top of the Timberg article saying, in part, “The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so.” Click the hyperlink above to see the full statement.]

Timberg also wrote, “Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery—including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social media accounts—echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.” 

Timberg cited as one of his sources PropOrNot, which he described as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technological backgrounds.” The PropOrNot report, Timberg said, “identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda. …”

First off, as its readers well know, Truthdig has never posted Russian propaganda, either knowingly or unwittingly. So the question is: Why is Truthdig on the list?

In seeking to answer it, I started with the Post story. Timberg is the newspaper’s national technology reporter, specializing in privacy, security and surveillance. He joined the Post in 1998 and has worked as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent. He co-authored a book, with Daniel Halperin, “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It.”

I emailed Timberg to say I was writing a story for Truthdig on his article and PropOrNot. I told him, “The point of my story will be precisely how did Truthdig and the other sites get on this list.” I said answering that question wouldn’t be easy for me: “PropOrNot is pretty opaque, just as Senator Joseph McCarthy was when he produced a sheet of paper in a 1950 speech which he said contained the names of 205 State Department employees who were known members of the Communist Party.”

I asked Timberg, “Did you know precisely how PropOrNot compiled its list? I think you owe an answer and an explanation to Truthdig, to me and to the other journalists and organizations that were included [either directly or indirectly]—and red baited—on the PropOrNot list.” [Editor’s insert added here for clarity.]

Timberg replied, “Hello Mr. Boyarsky. I’m directing your questions to the person at the Post who is authorized to respond, Kris Coratti. She is copied on my reply. Thank you. Best, Craig.”

Coratti has not replied.

Several days later Truthdig legal counsel sent a retraction demand to The Washington Post. In a letter dated Dec. 7, a lawyer for the Post replied, saying in part: “… we believe readers recognize that the Post itself was not making factual claims of any kind about each of more than 200 sites identified in PropOrNot’s research. …” The letter also said, “… it bears noting that the Article, on its face, did not purport to vouch for or corroborate the conclusions of the four research bodies whose work was mentioned. …”

Timberg, in his story, said he had communicated with the executive director of PropOrNot, “who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.”

It was cowardly of the PropOrNot executive to point fingers at organizations and hurt their reputations without having the courage to identify herself or himself and take responsibility for the accusations.

In the Post article, Timberg said PropOrNot researchers used “Internet analytics tools to trace the origins of particular tweets and mapped the connections among social-media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages.” This bit of tech jargon did not give me the information I needed.

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