PropOrNot’s Grandiose Fabrications

The fake news site about fake news known as PropOrNot1 has been roundly derided, most recently by the New Yorker and the media watchdog FAIR, as an inept propaganda effort that has gotten far more attention that it ever deserved.

It’s worth noting that PropOrNot’s efforts, as Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept, and Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone pointed out, were so obviously childish and overreaching that no reputable reporter should ever have regarded them as credible.

However, PropOrNot didn’t just make wild assertions that they can’t back up. They’ve routinely said things that are simply false.

A fresh incident involves the curious removal of five websites, including CounterPunch, from PropOrNot’s McCarthyite blacklist of 200 websites.

PropOrNot tries to make it sound as if they persuaded these sites to see the error of their ways. From the bottom of the updated list:

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PropOrNot has been eager to get sites to contact them to engage in “constructive conversation,” as they suggested in Reddit that it would be just peachy if TruthDig “were to reach out to us, though, we would probably have a constructive conversation with them that would result in their removal!”

In other words, PropOrNot, contrary to its claims of merely providing analysis, is seeking to act as a censor. In corporate-speak, “constructive conversation” is the sort of thing one has with an employee who is being put on warning for possible termination.

Counterpunch disputed PropOrNot’s characterization of their, um, exchange. From editor Jeffrey St. Clair’s diary:

ProporNot has since removed CounterPunch from their blacklist following our demand that they do so and issue a retraction. Their site now claims, falsely again, that we engaged in “constructive conversation” with them, which is a curious way to describe a threat to sue them, a threat which we fully intend to follow through on, hopefully in concert with other media outlets they’ve defamed.

Counterpunch, per Josh Frank’s article, did have a few additional words with PropOrNot, the result of having to deal with a situation that ought to be seen as absurd but nevertheless requires handling. Frank reproduces this howler from “The PropOrNot Team”:

If Truthout, Truthdig, Antiwar, BlackAgendaReport, etc, were to reach out to us like you did, things might well end up playing out very similarly to how this one has! We’ve asked people to do that on our site. Several have. Others have not.

This is a pretty bizarre effort to depict how PropOrNot capitulated as if it were PropOrNot getting an outcome it sought. As St. Clair said by e-mail:

Josh’s letter simply demanded removal from the list and a retraction. There was nothing at all “constructive” about the dialogue, except how quickly they wilted.

But as Frank’s post describes, PropOrNot went to peculiar lengths to recharacterize what happened, with the effect of digging their hole deeper. Again from PropOrNot:

If someone contacts us and the resulting conversation makes clear that they understand, for example, how Putin’s Russia is a revisionist authoritarian wannabe-imperialist kleptocracy that uses ‘fake news’ as online propaganda, then we have a lot of common ground. That factors into our understanding of the merits, but more importantly, becomes a basis for constructive movement forward.

As Frank comments:

Huh? That isn’t very sound methodology if you ask me, more like a shallow smear campaign manufactured by amateurs. PropOrNot will consider taking these sites off their blacklist, not based on the sites’ content but on whether or not they contacted PropOrNot directly and if “they understand” Putin is a bad hombre?

Another example of PropOrNot just making stuff up, and not well, is this diagram which supposedly shows the output of some of its analytical work:

propornot-diagram

Even though I have had only limited exposure to network analyses, even I could tell the chart was bogus. The fact that it shows two focus points for a large number of sites for 200 sites (or even a smaller number) with a huge number of articles among them is utterly implausible.

George Washington’s Blog got corroboration from an expert, former NSA official Thomas Drake:

The diagram is far too artificially symmetrical and overly simplistic. It’s unidimensional manufactured evidence to create a certain narrative by positing faux scientific methodology that makes it appear legit, yet is really fake.

We also have the curious way that PropOrNot tries to take credit for the work of people who want to have nothing to do with them. From Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald:

PropOrNot listed numerous organizations on its website as “allied” with it, yet many of these claimed “allies” told The Intercept, and complained on social media, they have nothing to do with the group and had never even heard of it before the Post published its story.

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At some point last night, after multiple groups listed as “allies” objected, the group quietly changed the title of its “allied” list to “Related Projects.” When The Intercept asked PropOrNot about this clear inconsistency via email, the group responded concisely: “We have no institutional affiliations with any organization.”

Yves here. So when confronted with the fact that PropOrNot’s supposed best buddies had never heard of them, what do they do? They double down by changing the label for these players from the ambiguous “Allies” to “Related Projects.” Any reader would see “Related Projects” as describing a deep, ongoing connection, specifically, that these were undertakings where PropOrNot was either the lead actor or exerting significant control.

In a New Yorker article that ran after The Intercept piece, Higgins was again critical of PropOrNot, which is at odds with how PropOrNot depicts their relationship:

“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 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.”

So why haven’t Higgins and the other well-regarded actors on the PropOrNot “Related Parties” list asked to be removed? The Twitterstorm over who was depicted as in cahoots with them says many if not all are aware of PropOrNot hijacking their brands. For instance, both Mark Ames and I tweeted to Snopes, and I also e-mailed asking for a clarification of their relationship and never got an answer. It’s difficult to fathom why these individuals and organizations are tolerating having their good names being used by shysters to legitimate their effort, particularly after they’ve gotten so much negative press. Perhaps they need to take a lesson from Counterpunch and have a “constructive conversation” with PropOrNot.

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1 We dispense with the normal Internet convention of linking to this website, since we do not want to elevate its standing in Google. We encourage you to view our far more accurate, entertaining and informative spoof site, PropOrNot.org, instead.

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39 comments

  1. Skip Intro

    So they are both bad propagandists and incompetent shakedown artists. You wouldn’t even have to watch the entire Sopranos oeuvre to know that the guys running the protection/extortion racket are supposed to be making the threats, not the other way around. This is just getting sad. Hopefully they can find some time over winter break to get their act together.

  2. YY

    I don’t really think that Bellingcat disassociating itself from propornot is much of a discredit, since they are both pretty much BS sources. Arguably Bellingcat is a bigger source of toxin…

    1. RMO

      Or you could view it another way: If these people are too screwy for even Bellingcat to be willing to be associated with them it could demonstrate just how ludicrous they are. Like if Adolf Hitler said to someone “Hey, you’re being kind of racist” or of Hunter Thompson told someone “You know, you’ve been hitting the booze and drugs a little hard lately.”

      Their way of spinning being made to remove a site from their list reminds me of how someone I used to work with always handled losing an argument in a meeting. When it was obvious that he was wrong for taking position X and that the correct position was position Y he would then say something like “OK, to sum up the situation, it seems we are all agreed that as I was saying before, position Y is of course the way to go. I’m glad we could work this out.” Fortunately it wasn’t a big enough organization for the tactic to actually work and everyone knew he was a bonehead. I wouldn’t be surprised if he later moved on to a large company and rode this conversational trick all the way to the executive suite though.

  3. kareninca

    I was already extremely skeptical of Snopes, and my skepticism is now fully justified; I will no longer consider consulting that site. By not demanding to be removed from PropOrNot they are supporting it and its odious McCarthyite mission. Snopes claims to be an impartial fact-checking site, but they are helping to promote unsupported slanderous anonymous accusations.

      1. kareninca

        Okay, will do. I still have to say that I have been very unconvinced by some of their posts. I’ll see if they come through for this.

  4. Soulipsis

    Perhaps PropOrNot is very skillfully setting the whole world up for a fake news revolution. Even if NC has the presence of mind to not link to them — I think there’s been a lot of linking, and even more significantly, a lot of propagation of the term “Russian propaganda”.

    I don’t like this. More than anything, I’d bet that whatever the PON objective is, the reaction of NC and the other targeted sites is not frustrating it.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Actually, in searching for re-locate various articles, I saw that Google featured pretty prominently a tweet by Prison Planet (as in Alex Jones) that was heavily retweeted that PropOrNot had gone quiet since the barrage of critical stories.

    1. UserFriendly

      The reply came from the newspaper’s vice president for public relations, Kristine Coratti Kelly, who thanked me “for reaching out to us” before presenting the Post’s response, quoted here in full:

      “The Post reported on the work of four separate sets of researchers, as well as independent experts, who have examined Russian attempts to influence American democracy. PropOrNot was one. The Post did not name any of the sites on PropOrNot’s list of organizations that it said had — wittingly or unwittingly — published or echoed Russian propaganda. The Post reviewed PropOrNot’s findings and our questions about them were answered satisfactorily during the course of multiple interviews.”

      1. flora

        unnamed “researchers” and “experts”, facts unverified by independent 3rd party sources, …. yep, hearsay and handwaving….

  5. Enjoin This!

    Long-time reader, first time … well, you know.

    Have you stopped beating your wife yet? Er, I mean your husband? Or what’s the fashionable term these days? Domestic partner? Coordinated co-housing expenditure associate?

    The whole PorN package was preposterous from the beginning. I mean, ANYONE with a modicum of intelligence (and I do mean ANYONE) knows NC isn’t a shill for anybody. And like other readers, I find the WP’s running of the story moderately astonishing. Except this whole election cycle revealed the credulous laziness of mass media. They’re suckers for a tightly-wrapped, shiny package of malarkey.

    I write simply because I’ve seen similar scenarios play out, albeit on a far smaller scale (I’ve been a big-city litigator for 20+ years). The PorN people were given a pre-fab story, sold it to the WP, realized they’ve been had, & are now falling all over themselves trying to preserve some semblance of credibility & dignity. “Constructive conversation” is exactly what your readers expect. Somebody told PorN to meet them behind the high school for a good, old-fashioned beat-down. It’s a “conversation,” see?

    I’d forecast settlement talks with WP on the horizon. It’s heartwarming to see the level of outrage raised by NC & others. In my cases, not many people really cared. But here … ooh, I want to cozy up with a cup of cocoa & follow the play-by-play. Have fun!! And warmest regards,

    ET!

    1. Enjoin This!

      Oh, I forgot to add: there will be lots of bluffing, braggadocio, and posturing. We’ll never settle! Etc., etc., etc. Until the settlement offer comes with its built-in confidentiality clause. That’s another place for fun. ET!

    2. johnnygl

      Re: settlement talks, I think it’s time to start putting demands on the table.

      1) front page apology on print edition signed by bezos.
      2) free shipping from amzn
      3) $15/hr min wage for all amzn and wapo employees. I included wapo because if they paid more, they’d get better writers, editors.
      4) one full page ad for nakedcap per week for 8 weeks.

  6. Eduardo Quince

    nutritionfacts.org was on the original blacklist? It’s a site run by a physician/author and its content is 100% nutrition-related. What a joke.

    1. craazyboy

      It’s their coverage of Red Beets. Borsht, ya know. These propaganda web crawlers don’t miss a thing!

      1. EmilianoZ

        Or they extolled the nutritional benefits of Russian caviar one time too many. Serves them right.

      1. Oregoncharles

        ProPornOt’s reply was 12 days ago; nothing further. No real answer.

        This might be the most damaging item of all; it proves that their “research” wasn’t.

    2. ocop

      At this point I’m beginning to think this whole thing could just be a 10/10 troll job on WaPo/establishment media (most of the rest of whom had the good sense to ignore it).

      The childish taunting? nutritionfacts.org as russian propoganda? “PorN” acronym? At least it got me to make another NC donation.

  7. craazyboy

    I like the last idea from the YYYYvesYYY spoof webpage. [Is my usage of Y correct here?]

    “We encourage PropOrNot to build on their promising start by treating this incident not as a failure, but as a learning experience. PropOrNot should analyze what aspects of their messaging were ineffective, and try to round out their skills into a more complete package. While we would be happy to give them pointers, other options are available as well. For example, they clearly respect Russian propagandists – why not ask the Kremlin for assistance?”

    But to maintain internal consistency, I think we need to strongly insist the “real” PropOrNot add “The Kremlin” to their “Related Projects” list. And by list[small caps], I’m using the non-threating connotation of “list”, and not the threatening version – i.e. “The List.” Just to be clear about things and head off any possible misunderstanding of my use of the English language. Which reminds me. Someone needs to find out if Ukrainians know what “porn” means in English? When dealing with non English speaking foreign governments, things can get lost in translation. It can be a source of diplomatic foopahs, which are best avoided when dealing with nuclear powers – and could potentially result in costly arm races, if one wants to be optimistic and hope for the least benign outcome.

  8. mle detroit

    PorN says it wants us to understand that “Putin’s Russia is a revisionist authoritarian wannabe-imperialist kleptocracy that uses ‘fake news’ as online propaganda, then we have a lot of common ground.”
    They certainly do have a lot in common — must have been looking in a mirror while writing that.

  9. linda amick

    Just a niggling hunch that keeps coming to mind…
    The Pizza gate investigation by the alternative media suggests the most horrific potentialities.
    This prop or not thing blowing up twitter and valid new sites with outrage seems a cover that equals the goings on of investigations into some of the podesta emails and such.
    Now the gunman entering that linked establishment adds to the distraction. That reality definitely seems like a hoax designed for cover.

  10. Propertius

    In other words, PropOrNot, contrary to its claims of merely providing analysis, is seeking to act as a censor.

    It looks more like plain old extortion to me.

    1. Harold

      I wonder if the boost given to Pro PornOt by the purportedly leftist In These Times was the result of extortion and why did they fall for it. I thought the people who founded In These Times used to be good guys.

  11. SocraticGadfly

    I emailed Snopes, when I first saw the site, and it specifically said, no, we’re not affiliated at all. Took about 30 secs.

  12. John Medcalf

    Where’s Bezos? I’m still speculating this is Bezos’ answer to Trump’s birthing. Annoy the press like hell. Let them whine and sue. Then save the country.

  13. Oregoncharles

    The .org site is very witty indeed, but I’m not sure that copyrighting it to your own business name is “good” propaganda, as the rest of it is.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      If we want to copyright it, we have to use a real name, either a person or a legal entity. I could have used a spoof name but there would be no copyright interest.

    1. Wee Liam

      Jeff Bezos needs to be thoroughly investigated by a Congressional committee. He appears to have serious antitrust issues. Very possibly he is guilty of treason.

      I doubt very much PropOrNot talked to those sites they “de-blacklisted”; they just had a crisis of confidence. NO ONE should talk to them; rather, ALL the named sites should file a class-action suit for a few tens of billions of dollars against PropOrNot and anyone who published the list!!

  14. Chuck

    Don’t forget that the Washington Post in question is the same Washington Post that publishes a section of “paid advertising” from time to time: “Russia Beyond the Headlines”. It looks rather like just another section of the paper; not quite the same style as the rest, but definitely recognizable as “a newspaper”. Also, definitely recognizable as propaganda, and much more skillfully produced than P or N.

  15. William Rood

    Well, pretty clear that propornot, along with any “related sites” who have not demanded to be removed from that list, are just plain “fake news.”

Comments are closed.