Thus far we at PropOrNot have identified over 200 distinct websites which qualify as Russian propaganda outlets according to our criteria, and target audiences in the United States. We estimate the regular US audiences of these sites to number in the tens of millions. We are gathering data to measure that more precisely, but we are confidant that it includes at least 15 million Americans.
The messaging used by these Russian propaganda outlets seems intended to confuse public opinion, encourage paranoia, distract American audiences away from relying on actually-accurate journalism, and influence the upcoming US election, while blunting opposition to and strengthening popular support for Russian strategic priorities - and even going so far as to lay the groundwork for, in the immediate aftermath of the upcoming election, Russian-orchestrated political violence in the US.
We at PropOrNot do not reach our conclusions lightly. We have arrived at them after systematically employing a combination of manual and automated analysis of open-source non-classified information, and building on the work of other researchers and journalists, in order to map out a related collection of websites, social media, video, and other outlets, which:
- Include official state-owned and semi-official Russian propaganda outlets, such as RT, Sputnik News, Russia Insider, etc.;
- Consistently cite official state-owned and semi-official Russian propaganda outlets, including the Russian defense ministry and other official spokespeople, etc.;
- Consistently reuse text directly from official state-owned and semi-official Russian propaganda outlets and government spokespeople, often with minimal or no attribution;
- Have a history of generally echoing the Russian propaganda "line", by using themes, arguments, talking points, images, and other content similar to those used by official state-owned and semi-official Russian propaganda outlets;
- Have a history of echoing the Russian propaganda "line" in ways unrelated to the purported focus of their branding, and in sequence with (at the same time as, or shortly after) official state-owned and semi-official Russian propaganda outlets;
- Qualify as propaganda under a rigorous definition: “A systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specific target audiences for political, ideological, and religious purposes, through the controlled transmission of deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels”;
- Have in many cases already been called out by other fact-checkers, researchers, journalists, debunkers, etc.;
- Share technical “tells”, such as Google Analytics IDs, Amazon affiliate codes, WHOIS data, hosting data, ad-network utilization, SEO techniques, etc., in some cases implicating direct Russian involvement;
- Refer their audiences to each other, via hyperlinks and other means, at disproportionately high rates;
- Are consistently visited by the same audiences, both directly and via search, demonstrating that those intra-network referrals build “brand loyalty” in their audiences over time;
- Are consistently visited by their audiences after searches for terms which congrue with the Russian propaganda “line”, and are unrelated to the purported focus of their branding;
- Are categorized as "similar sites" by automated services in spite of their purportedly distinct focuses;
- Have content characterized by automated services in ways that are consistently very different from their purported subjects, but align with the Russian propaganda “line”;
- Have content aligning with the “Eurasianist” philosophy of Alexander Dugin;
- Include specialized sites targeted at a wide range of audiences, including US military veterans, Wall St. finance types, environmentalists, peace activists, racists, conspiracy theorists, political junkies, etc.;
- Appear to be effectively influencing public opinion in significant and very problematic ways, by promoting:
- Conspiracy theories about and protests against US military exercises,
- Isolationism/anti-interventionism generally,
- Support for policies like Brexit, and the breakup of the EU and Eurozone,
- Opposition to Ukrainian resistance to Russia and Syrian resistance to Assad,
- Support for the anti-vax, anti-Zika spraying, anti-GMO, 9/11-”truther”, gold-standard, and other related movements;
- Confuse public opinion, encourage paranoia and passivity, and distract American audiences away from relying on actually-accurate journalism,
- Blunt opposition to and strengthen popular support for Russian strategic priorities,
- Influence the US election, and
- Lay the groundwork for orchestrated violence, in the immediate aftermath of the election, against the US government.
Please also note that it is possible that this being effectively addressed by the US government in ways we're unaware of yet, but we have done our due diligence, and this does not seem to be the case. We have had extensive conversations with national security professionals in the legislative branch, executive branch, active and retired, and to a person, none of them are aware of it being addressed by the national security apparatus.
On the contrary, we have been advised that the US government is deliberately and purposely not getting involved, and steering clear of this in order to avoid inadvertantly influencing domestic politics and our democratic process. This has backfired, creating a US government blind spot, and opening an opportunity for a foreign power to do exactly what our government is so carefully trying to avoid doing: Directly manipulate our democratic process.
We use a combination of manual and automated analysis, including analysis of content, timing, technical indicators, and other reporting, in order to initially identify (“red-flag”) and then confirm an outlet as Russian propaganda. Our volunteers have developed a suite of software tools, leveraging publicly available data and commercial services, in order to perform automated analysis, but everything we do is in principle replicable using manual searching and data entry.
We initially red-flag a new site based on content-based criteria like those outlined above. Does it:
- Consistently cite official state-owned and semi-official Russian propaganda outlets?
- Consistently reuse text directly from official state-owned and semi-official Russian propaganda outlets?
- Have a history of generally echoing the Russian propaganda "line", especially in ways unrelated to the purported focus of their branding, and in sequence with other Russian propaganda outlets?
- Has it been called out by other fact-checkers, researchers, journalists, and debunkers for posting fake news?
In the process of doing this, we have also identified a significant set of YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc, which are acting as part of the same larger Russian influence operation.
Our initial findings include:
- There are well over 200 distinct websites which qualify as Russian propaganda outlets according to our criteria, and target audiences in the United States.
- We estimate the regular US audiences of these sites to number in the tens of millions. We are gathering data to measure that more precisely, but we are confidant that it includes at least 15 million Americans.
- We have yet to to analyze at least hundreds more websites, along with numerous more YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc.
- The US government is fully aware that this is the case.
- The US government has refrained from publicizing it, primarily to avoid interference in the domestic political process.
- However, this inaction has deprived the American public of information they need to vote in an informed manner, and allowed Russia to manipulate the US domestic political process and interfere in the 2016 election.