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The reality behind Russia’s fake news

Western media blaming Russia for trying to undermine US election with fake news. The Kremlin has consistently denied any interference. Credit: Shutterstock/Caroline Matthews/CNNMONEY

The 2016 presidential race was rife with disinformation, none more blatant than fake news — hoaxes, half-truths, outright lies — that flashed through the internet at warp speed.

Take, for example, “Pizzagate,” a made-up story of a pedophilia ring supposedly being run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor by none other than Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta.

Fueled by conspiracy theorists posting on social media sites like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter, the story picked up so much traction that The New York Times and the Washington Post were forced to track it down, finally debunking it.

Then there were the stories about Clinton’s health. Not just her actual September bout with pneumonia, but other stories claiming she had a brain injury and was losing her mind.

The Kremlin connection

Western media, for the most part, are blaming Moscow, accusing the Kremlin of exploiting fake news to damage Clinton, help elect Donald Trump, and undermine the American electorate’s faith in their government.

The Kremlin has consistently denied it tried to interfere in the election.

Two new studies that were cited by media outlets, including the Washington Post, claim Russia used “thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social-media accounts” to “echo and amplify” false or misleading tweets, Facebook posts, videos and media reports.

The first study — “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy” — appeared in early November in War on the Rocks, an online magazine.

“Russia’s propaganda mechanisms primarily aim for “alt-right and more traditional right-wing and fascist parties,” Clint Watts, one of the co-authors of the paper, tells CNN, but they’re also “hitting across any group in the United States that is anti-government, or fomenting dissent or conspiracies against the US government and its institutions.”

Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University co-authored the study alongside two other researchers, Andrew Weisburd and J.M. Berger.

“It’s not exclusive to Trump,” Watts explains. “They are huge in the white nationalist community. That’s where we saw them before they went to Trump. And then they try on the left as well.”

Who’s behind the misinformation push?

Watts says that, during the election campaign, three main groups traded in fake news: passionate Trump supporters; people out to make money by driving followers to their websites with “click bait” stories; and the Russian propaganda apparatus.

Each group used social platforms differently and the research team used various social media metrics to distinguish the behavior among them. Content from “click bait profiteers,” for example, is absorbed in a different way to propaganda content.

“If you’re just trying to sell something it’s more like an Amazon advertisement,” Watts explains. “The Russian propaganda system would have what you would call ‘horizontal conversations’ — a discussion for influence purposes.”

That doesn’t mean Moscow would turn down an opportunity to exploit fake news created by someone else who supports the Russian line.

“They’ll use it too,” he says. “They see it as free propaganda.”

But importantly, Watts says, Russia’s goal wasn’t just to elect Trump. “The goal is to erode trust in mainstream media, public figures, government institutions — everything that holds the unity of the Republic together.”

Trapped in social ‘echo chamber’

The second study was conducted by an anonymous, self-described “non-partisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds” who call themselves PropOrNot.

The group says it, too, analyzed tweets and other social media messages ricocheting around the web and found many of the same phrases, which it interpreted as indicating that they came from the same single source.

In some cases, fake news was spread knowingly; in other cases, activists and others simply picked up and passed on tidbits they liked, in what the authors describe as an “online echo chamber.”

Their conclusion: Russia has made “large-scale, long-term efforts to build online ‘fake news’ propaganda outlets with significant audiences in the US.”

“We are not exaggerating Russia’s influence,” the group told CNN in an emailed statement. “Many different groups spew fake news but Russia is currently the industry leader.”

A fake news blacklist

PropOrNot’s report lists 200 websites that qualify, according to their criteria, as “Russian propaganda outlets” reaching, they claim, at least 15 million Americans. The effort, they say, is “at least semi-centralized.”

“There are varying degrees of involvement in it, and awareness of involvement,” their report says. “Some people involved seem genuinely unaware that they are being used by Russia to produce propaganda, but many others seem to know full well.”

But other digital experts criticize that approach, saying it is too broad and includes sites that are legitimately expressing their own views, even if they happen to coincide with Russia’s messaging.

As Ben Nimmo, information defense fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, puts it: “There’s more to this than the Kremlin.”

“To reduce this all to ‘Oh, it’s the Russians doing it’ is to ignore the very real problem that there is the alt-right doing this in the US, and you’ve got convinced people in Germany and France who are doing this. You’ve got people in the UK as well, apparently as of their own conviction,” he says.

“If they all hate America, and they all hate Clinton, and they all hate America having an active foreign policy, sure they’re going to share stuff.”

In a written statement emailed to CNN, PropOrNot defended both its methods and its mission.

“Our list was never intended to be ‘black.’ We highlight these outlets because we believe that the public should be able to know that very disparate kinds of online outlets frequently display a strong bias towards Russia in ways that echo, repeat, are used by, and redirect their audiences to Russian official and semi-official state media. We highlight. Unlike the Russian government, we do not censor.”

Since the report’s publication, the group says it has removed some websites — ones that “have made a case for their independence” — from its list. In other cases, it says, it has added new sites “especially ones which are directly owned and controlled by governments that suppress and restrict free media.”

‘Firehose of falsehood’

A third study by the Rand Corporation and George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs delves even further into what it labels Russia’s “firehose of falsehood.”

“The Russian propaganda model,” the report says, “is high-volume and multichannel, and it disseminates messages without regard for the truth. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency.”

All that makes it extremely difficult to counter, the report says. Facebook and Google have promised to crack down on fake news but it appears little has been done so far. After outlining measures to prevent the proliferation of more fake news on Facebook, the social platform’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote: “We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”

What Russian media thinks

RT, the Russian media company, and the Russian news service Sputnik — both state-financed — feature prominently in most reports on Russian propaganda. The Washington Post article, quoting researchers, accuses the outlets of “sometimes” including “false and misleading stories in their reports.”

RT dismisses the Washington Post story as a “hit piece.”

“RT has never engaged in any such activity — which is, perhaps, why WashPo failed to provide a single piece of evidence or reference,” Editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, tells CNN.

“It is particularly troubling,” she says, “that, prior to publishing the piece, the Washington Post did not even bother to seek a comment from RT, as a right of reply would be the minimum in standard journalistic practice when making such libelous claims … It seems ironic that in its eagerness to comment on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, the outlet would follow in a similar vein in its own editorial approach.”

Asked for a response, the Washington Post tells CNN: “While we did quote the Kremlin denying any interference in the US election, we should also have obtained separate comment from RT, a network funded by the Russian government. Its comment was later included in the online version of the story.”

Simonyan insists that RT is “most highly concerned about the ‘fake news’ phenomenon because … it is perfectly acceptable for the mainstream media to promote fake news — as long as it’s about Russia or RT.”

More leaks ahead?

During the US presidential campaigns, most fake news blasted Clinton and praised Trump but expert Clint Watts says the President-elect can’t count on Moscow’s benign approach continuing.

“I would assume that if Trump doesn’t support Putin’s policies then they’re next,” he cautions.

In spite of Russia’s denials and Trump’s doubts, cybersecurity experts say Russia likely hacked not only Democrats’ emails but Republicans’ as well.

“We think they have thousands of people’s emails,” Watts tells CNN. “As those people rise in prominence or become more important in a Russia context, [Moscow] will use more and more data dumps to undermine the integrity of people.

“That’s just ammunition. They’re going to hold it until they need it.”