So, it seems like "fake news"
is all the rage these days. As we've discussed, the sudden focus on fake news is a silly distraction
. It's not likely to be changing
many minds -- and the talk about fake news seems mostly to be leading to calls for censorship
. And a big part of the problem is that "fake news" is such a broad and vague label. It's been applied to outright propaganda, to satire, to serious reporting, to serious reporting people don't like... and to serious, but mistaken, reporting. The problem is that when you lump all those things together, things get pretty damn messy.
Take, for example, this "fake news" story that got a lot of attention when it came out right around Thanksgiving: the Washington Post claimed that some "experts" had shown that Russian propagandists were behind the fake news explosion
during the election. Which experts? The story doesn't say. What evidence? The story doesn't say. The article is focused on a brand new organization called "PropOrNot" that claimed to be run by experts, but won't identify who's involved, and the Washington Post didn't seem to care. But still it made incredibly broad claims about "fake news" and Russian propaganda.
Almost as soon as the story came out, it was being torn to shreds as being ridiculous. Mathew Ingram, at Fortune, was quick to poke holes in the story
, pointing out (among other things) that various organizations that PropOrNot listed as "allies" had never heard of the organization and certainly were not working with it.
Glenn Greenwald did a thorough debunking
of the Washington Post story, noting that "PropOrNot" listed all sorts of ideologically-attached websites as "fake news" just because many of the websites were not fans of Hillary Clinton. Greenwald noted how McCarthyite the whole thing was:
In casting the group behind this website as “experts,” the Post described PropOrNot simply as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.” Not one individual at the organization is named. The executive director is quoted, but only on the condition of anonymity, which the Post said it was providing the group “to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.”
In other words, the individuals behind this newly created group are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities. The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist. Echoing the Wisconsin senator, the group refers to its lengthy collection of sites spouting Russian propaganda as “The List.”
The credentials of this supposed group of experts are impossible to verify, as none is provided either by the Post or by the group itself. The Intercept contacted PropOrNot and asked numerous questions about its team, but received only this reply: “We’re getting a lot of requests for comment and can get back to you today =) [smiley face emoticon].” The group added: “We’re over 30 people, organized into teams, and we cannot confirm or deny anyone’s involvement.”
Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi called the whole thing shameful and disgusting
Forget that the Post offered no information about the "PropOrNot" group beyond that they were "a collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds."
Forget also that the group offered zero concrete evidence of coordination with Russian intelligence agencies, even offering this remarkable disclaimer about its analytic methods:
"Please note that our criteria are behavioral. ... For purposes of this definition it does not matter ... whether they even knew they were echoing Russian propaganda at any particular point: If they meet these criteria, they are at the very least acting as bona-fide 'useful idiots' of the Russian intelligence services, and are worthy of further scrutiny."
What this apparently means is that if you published material that meets their definition of being "useful" to the Russian state, you could be put on the "list," and "warrant further scrutiny."
Forget even that in its Twitter responses to criticism of its report, PropOrNot sounded not like a group of sophisticated military analysts, but like one teenager:
"Awww, wook at all the angwy Putinists, trying to change the subject - they're so vewwy angwy!!" it wrote on Saturday.
"Fascists. Straight up muthafuckin' fascists. That's what we're up against," it wrote last Tuesday, two days before Timberg's report.
Any halfway decent editor would have been scared to death by any of these factors. Moreover the vast majority of reporters would have needed to see something a lot more concrete than a half-assed theoretical paper from such a dicey source before denouncing 200 news organizations as traitors.
Even The Nation started mocking the Washington Post
for publishing such trash. And then Adrian Chen, at the New Yorker, did a near total shredding of the WaPo story
, noting that he and many others had received the pitch from PropOrNot, but passed on it as obviously ridiculous.
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. Yet PropOrNot claims to be uninterested in differentiating between organizations that are explicit tools of the Russian state and so-called “useful idiots,” which echo Russian propaganda out of sincerely held beliefs. “We focus on behavior, not motivation,” they write.
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. “It’s so incredibly scattershot,” Higgins told me. “If you’ve ever posted a pro-Russian post on your site, ever, you’re Russian propaganda.”
The most incredible thing in all this mess is that the Washington Post and its Editor in Chief have refused to comment on the article or answer the criticism at all. They've just ignored it entirely.
With such broad criteria ensnaring all sorts of websites, some of them have decided to push back. The website NakedCapitalism has sent a letter demanding a retraction
and threatening a defamation lawsuit. The site Truthdig claims that it, too, has The letter
argues that calling a website "fake news" is defamation:
I write on behalf of my client, Aurora Advisors Incorporated (“Aurora”), which publishes the finance and economics website Naked Capitalism (www.nakedcapitalism .com) to request that the article by Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” (“Fake News”) [https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/russianpropaganda-effort-helped-spread-fake-news-during-election-expertssay/2016/11/24/793903b6-8a40-4ca9-b712-716af66098fe_story.html] published by the Post on Thursday, November 25, be immediately removed from your website and all web-accessible archives. Fake News contains extremely damaging false allegations constituting defamation. Furthermore, Aurora asks for a prominent public apology for the false and defamatory accusations made in Fake News and for an equally prominent (i.e. not in a “Comments” section) opportunity to respond.
You began Fake News with the sensational claim: “The flood of ‘fake news’ this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy,” and attributed this claim to “independent researchers who tracked the operation.” Naked Capitalism is one of the accused organizations in PropOrNot’s report, which, contrary to Fake News’ claim that the report had not been published, was available on the Internet well before Fake News ran. [http://www.propornot.com/p/the-list.html] This error should be corrected.
You identified and thus denigrated Naked Capitalism, one of the sites targeted in the “study” as one of the “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.” You called upon Facebook and Google to “crack down on ‘fake news,’” apparently by censoring Naked Capitalism, because it is supposedly “attack[ing] American democracy.”
Your identification of Naked Capitalism as a “fake news site” and as an agent for Russian propaganda designed to undermine American democracy is defamatory per se. You accuse Naked Capitalism of spreading “Russian-backed phony news to outcompete traditional news organizations for audience.” These serious allegations have caused and will continue to cause great harm to Naked Capitalism, including but not limited to damage to policy impact and reputation, diversion of scarce reporting and managerial resources to respond to concerned inquires and debunk this smear, loss of readers, and damage to the site’s profitability. Moreover, writers and editors associated with Naked Capitalism face ridicule, emotional distress, loss of reputation, and risk to future career advancement, including for example, difficulty passing background and security checks
The letter goes on (and on and on) from there, but I don't see how any of what the Washington Post did was actually defamatory
. Stupid, wrong and misleading? Yup. Absolutely. But to reach the level of defamation would take a lot more. Also, the Washington Post didn't actually name the sites NakedCapitalism or Truthdig. Both of those were just on the separate (ridiculous) list that PropOrNot published. So writing about PropOrNot (even, stupidly repeating its bogus and silly claims) doesn't automatically make you liable for PropOrNot putting sites on a list. On top of that, it's unlikely that even PropOrNot directly is liable for defamation for putting sites on a "Fake News" list. While there have been some cases here and there about whether putting companies on a "spammer" list is defamatory, in the US, merely putting people on such a list is likely to be protected speech -- especially when the list is for something as vague as "propaganda."
So, no one comes out of this looking very good. The Washington Post looks completely ridiculous. PropOrNot and whoever is behind it look like a joke. But even NakedCapitalism comes off looking a little silly by pulling out the defamation threat. Calling for a retraction is fine and sensible. Mocking the Washington Post, its reporter, and PropOrNot is totally fair game. But what the Washington Post did was just really ridiculously bad reporting. Not defamation.
And, thus, we're back where we started. In some circles, what the Washington Post did was "fake news." And, no, the Washington Post shouldn't claim it's defamatory for us to say that either. In fact, this only serves to highlight what a useless term "fake news" is to describe some very, very different situations. Bad reporting is bad reporting and should be called out as such. Propaganda should be called out as such. Made up stories for clicks should be called out as such. "Fake news" is too broad and a useless categorization. But, really, the Washington Post should have known better -- and should have taken down that article by now and apologized for it.