Frequently Asked Questions

1) What exactly is propaganda?

Propaganda - [prop-uh-gan-duh], noun:
A systematic form of persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified 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.
Drawing on the work of Harold Lasswell, Garth Jowett, Victoria O'Donnell, Richard Alan Nelson,  Zbyněk Zeman, and others, this project uses the above working definition of propaganda for purposes of disambiguation and general clarity.

Propaganda can be categorized as either white, gray, or black: white propaganda openly discloses its source. Grey propaganda is ambiguous or non-disclosed. Black propaganda purports to be published by an enemy, or someone besides its actual origins.

Propaganda is distinct from education because of its one-sided focus on persuasion, rather than critical thinking. Education tries to present various sides of an issue, along with arguments for doubting as well as arguments for believing relevant claims, and the disadvantages as well as the advantages thereof. In contrast, propaganda selectively includes or omits information in order to influence its audience towards a particular result.

Propaganda is distinct from advocacy because of its deceptive and selectively-omitting nature. Advocacy can be one-sided, but once it starts deliberately deceiving its audience, and selectively includes or omits information, it becomes propaganda.

Propaganda is distinct from advertising because of its political, ideological, and religious objectives, whereas advertising focuses on commercial objectives. While these can sometimes overlap, the resulting messaging becomes a hybrid of propaganda and advertising.

It is a reasonable analogy to say that, just as terrorism involves the use of violence against civilians for political gain, propaganda involves the use of deception against civilians for political gain.

2) What are "active measures"?

Active Measures - [Russian: активные меры], noun:
A Soviet term for the actions of political warfare conducted by security services to influence the course of world events, in addition to collecting intelligence and producing "politically correct" assessment of it. Active measures ranged "from media manipulations to special actions involving various degrees of violence". They were used both abroad and domestically. They included disinformation, propaganda, counterfeiting official documents, assassinations, and political repression, such as penetration into churches, and persecution of political dissidents.
During Cold War 1, Soviet active measures included the establishment and support of international front organizations (e.g. the World Peace Council); foreign communist, socialist and opposition parties; wars of national liberation in the Third World; and underground, revolutionary, insurgent, criminal, and terrorist groups. The intelligence agencies of Eastern Bloc states also contributed to these programs, providing operatives and intelligence for assassinations and other types of covert operations.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence services have picked up where the Soviets left off.

There is actually a wide range of information about this in the public record. We have collected some of the best public reporting about this into the Reference Articles section of this site.

3) What exactly does modern Russian propaganda consist of?

It consists primarily of "gray" fake-media propaganda outlets, including websites, Youtube channels, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, integrated with and helping echo official- and semi-official state-owned media. This project exists to help identify it.

'The Kremlin uses disinformation campaigns, incitement to violence, and hate speech, to undermine neighbors, break Western alliances and, in Ukraine, pave the way for kinetic war. The aim is to destroy trust, sap morale, degrade the information space, help destroy public discourse and increase partisanship. Russia’s tactics draw on Soviet traditions of “active measures” and dezinformatsiya. But in an age of transnational broadcasting and a global internet, the potential for sowing chaos, distrust and polarization has become much greater.

If there is one common thread in the Kremlin’s many narratives it is the use of conspiratorial discourse and a strategic use of disinformation to trash the information space, break trust, increase polarization and undermine the public space for democratic debate: This is a war on information rather than an “information war.” In this regard the Kremlin is going with the flow of changes in Western media, politics and society, where there is less trust in public institutions and mainstream media, where previously fringe movements are gaining strength and the space for a public discourse is shrinking.'
-- Defending and Ultimately Defeating Russia’s Disinformation Techniques, Edward Lucas and Peter Pomeranzev, August 2016, Center for European Policy Analysis

Russian doctrine is quite explicit about this. Putin's pet fascist philosopher, Alexander Dugin, has mapped this out in some detail:
'Within the United States itself, there is a need for the Russian special services and their allies "to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States (it is possible to make use of the political forces of Afro-American racists)" (248). "It is especially important," Dugin adds, "to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements-- extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics" (367).'
-- Aleksandr Dugin's Foundations of Geopolitics, by John B. Dunlop, Jan 31 2004, in Demokratizatsiya 12.1

Russia does not use propaganda in isolation. It is used in concert with aggressive cyberespionage, traditional espionage, corruption of political leadership, support for radical political parties, economic leverage, coercive energy policies, facilitation of migrant flows, surprise military exercises, violations of airspace, territorial waters and even national borders, and outright military operations, in pursuit of Russian strategic objectives.

4) Why is Russian leadership doing this? What are their strategic objectives?

To stabilize their structurally-unstable regime, on the one hand, and to Make Russia Great Again (as a new "Eurasian" empire stretching from Dublin to Vladisvostok), on the other. That means preserving Russian allies like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, breaking up the "globalist" EU, NATO, and US-aligned trade and defense organizations, and getting countries to join "Eurasianist" Russian equivalents instead... Or else.

Their first objective is regime defense. Russia is a poor authoritarian oligarchy whose rulers stash their wealth in the West, so Russia is structurally unstable and inefficient in ways that liberal democracies are not. By attempting to dismantle liberal democracy abroad, they hope to refute and disarm the threat it poses to them at home:
'In order to defend the regime, the Kremlin will—as its cynical and aggressive behaviour in recent years has suggested—continue “dismantling the West”, i.e. attempting to minimise the role of the US in global politics, weaken transatlantic relations, undermine NATO and demolish the EU.'
-- The Challenge of Russia’s Anti-Western Information Warfare, by Anton Shekhovtsov, April 2015, in Diplomaatia

Russian leadership views the existence of "the West" as an existential threat facing their regime, so they are working to replace it with authoritarian oligarchy, as they have. They correctly recognize that the liberal-democratic package deal that "the West" is built around (including democratic governance, human rights, economic equity, and the rule of law) effectively refutes the basis for their own regimes’ legitimacy, and presents a compelling alternative to their rule, because it is actually better for everybody except themselves (the existing rulers). They believe that the two kinds of society are mutually exclusive, and the liberal democratic West will hegemonize them out of existence unless they dismantle the West first. They are used to this kind of zero-sum thinking from the Cold War. They were right about it then and they are right about it now.

However, they are also territorially expansionist. They want to "Make Russia Great Again" as a new global empire, and Putin's favorite fascist philosopher, Alexander Dugin, has mapped out a semi-coherent plan for doing so in his 600-page imperialist manifesto, Foundations of Geopolitics. Justified by a shifting set of Russian-supremacist, "Slavic Man's Burden"-like, anti-individualist, religious, and mystical rationales, it unabashedly advocates creation of a new Russian continental empire, in which "ethnic Russians" would have a privileged position. Page numbers are in parentheses:
'Russians are a messianic people, possessing "universal, pan-human significance" (189). The Russian people, Dugin insists, can serve only as the core ethnos of a vast empire: "[T]he Russian people (i.e. Russia) never made its goal the creation of a mono-ethnic, racially uniform state" (190). Such a distorted view represents "the Atlanticist line masking itself as 'Russian nationalism'" (213).

"A repudiation of the empire-building function," Dugin warns sternly, "would signify the end of the Russian people as a historical reality, as a civilizational phenomenon. Such a repudiation would be tantamount to national suicide" (197). Deprived of an empire, Russians will "disappear as a nation" (251). The sole viable course, in Dugin's view, is for Russians to rebound from the debacle of 1989-1991 by recreating a great "supra-national empire," one in which ethnic Russians would occupy "a privileged position" (251-252). The result of such a rebuilding effort would be "a giant continental state in the administration of which they [Russians] will play the central role" (253). This ethnic model, Dugin notes, is quite similar to that of the former Soviet Union.

In order to facilitate the recreation of a vast Russian-dominated continental empire, Dugin advocates the unleashing of Russian nationalist sentiment, but of a specific type. "This [Russian] nationalism," he writes, "should not employ state but, rather, cultural-ethnic terminology, with a special emphasis on such categories as 'Narodnost" and 'Russian Orthodoxy'" (255). Religious sentiment, Dugin urges, should be placed front and center: "Russians should realize that they are Orthodox in the first place; [ethnic] Russians in the second place; and only in the third place, people" (255). There is a need, Dugin insists, for the "total churchification" of Russians, for the Russian nation to become viewed simply as "the Church" (255-256).

Such an emphasis, he believes, should--together with a persistent focus on the glorious past and bright future of the Russian nation--help bring about the "demographic upsurge" so desperately needed by Russians today. Economic incentives by themselves will prove insufficient to promote such an upsurge (256-257). One "radical" slogan, Dugin concludes, must be consistently put forward: "The nation is everything; the individual is nothing" (257). This slogan encapsulates one of Dugin's most cherished beliefs.'
-- Aleksandr Dugin's Foundations of Geopolitics, by John B. Dunlop, Jan 31 2004, in Demokratizatsiya 12.1

However, as things stand, Russia is poor, corrupt, weak, and unstable. The only major things they produce that anyone else wants are weapons and fossil fuels. Their real GDP is smaller than Spain's, but they are heavily armed and possess a formidable espionage apparatus. They know they cannot compete with the West directly, so they have to divide, confuse, and corrupt in order to conquer. Propaganda is one of their primary tools because they are so weak in other ways. They're working with what they've got.

5) Who exactly is behind this Russian effort?

While ultimately run by the FSB, in practice it is semi-centralized, with multiple Russian efforts working in parallel to manage the direct and outsourced production of propaganda across a wide range of outlets. It is data-driven, and rewards effective entrepreneurship and innovation with increased funding and other resources. Some people involved seem genuinely unaware that they are being used by Russia to produce propaganda, but many others know for whom they are working.

One of the most notable of these large-scale online influence operations, the “Internet Research Agency”, was launched in April 2014, and appears to have been initially funded directly out of a Russian presidential administration slush fund: 
Novaya Gazeta claimed this week that the campaign is run by Evgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur who catered Putin’s re-inauguration in 2012. Prigozhin has reportedly orchestrated several other elaborate Kremlin-funded campaigns against opposition members and the independent media. Emails from the hacked trove show an accountant for the Internet Research Agency approving numerous payments with an accountant from Prigozhin’s catering holding, Concord.
-- Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America, by Max Seddon, on June 2 2014, in Buzzfeed

Given the scale of the propaganda operations described above, and their integration with sophisticated cyberintelligence operations like the DNC/DCCC hacks, Donald Trump’s campaign, and similar political influence operations in Europe, it is likely that multiple Russian intelligence agencies and contractors are responsible for various parts of this effort. It seems at least partially decentralized, with entrepreneurial propagandists competing for funding from Russian oligarchs and intelligence agencies.

Russian propaganda targeted at US audiences is often, although not always, produced by US citizens, paid and directed by Russian handlers. The US citizens it employs are often paid by their handlers through donations to their websites, ad revenue, speaking fees at Russia-organized conferences, and fees for appearances on Russian propaganda networks like RT. They often use their real names, and can be accurately described as "useful idiots", "fellow travellers", or "agents of influence". They are not always aware of how the content they are producing fits into larger Russian strategic objectives, but in many cases they have chosen to actively support Russian propaganda efforts.

A constellation of Western conspiracy theorists, brought together though the Internet, has become a vital source to Russian and Iranian propagandists. The tenor of their commentary is much the same as Rickard’s— anti-Western, anti-Israel, and convinced that small groups of the powerful rule the world. Their entrance into Russian and Iranian media represents a fundamental change in the nature of propaganda. Propagandists in Moscow and Tehran no longer dictate the official line, but crowd-source it, drawing on American conspiracy theorists to support their political agenda.
-- Russian Propaganda and the Americans Who Make It, by Ben Van Meter, on December 8, 2014, in New Russians

Russian propaganda is identifiable by a combination of technical analysis, temporal analysis, content analysis, and other more subtle approaches, but it can be characterized by the way it promotes overt or covert Kremlin objectives, in concert with other Russian efforts. 

6) When did this start happening?

There have been numerous precedents for this kind of influence operation since the early Cold War, but they seem to have dropped off after the Cold War due to the general discombobulation of post-Soviet Russia. Russia started setting up its first fake-"think-tank" propaganda websites not long after Putin became president in 2000.

This is a notable precedent, from 1962:

‘Operation INFEKTION was a KGB disinformation campaign to spread information that the United States invented HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons research project at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The Soviet Union used it to undermine the United States’ credibility, foster anti-Americanism, isolate America abroad, and create tensions between host countries and the U.S. over the presence of American military bases (which were often portrayed as the cause of AIDS outbreaks in local populations)... The groundwork appeared in the pro-Soviet Indian newspaper Patriot which, according to a KGB defector named Ilya Dzerkvelov, was set up by the KGB in 1962 “in order to publish disinformation”.’
-- Soviet Influence Activities: A Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986-87, U.S. Department of State., Washington D.C.: Bureau of Public Affairs, August 1987, pg. 34, 44

While the USSR invested extensively in this sort of effort during Cold War I, it seems to have dropped off during the 90s, while the new Russia was in relative disarray. However, some notable Russian-propaganda sites, like the 9/11 conspiracy theory-focused, were created shortly before 9/11, so the infrastructure to create and operate them was already well-established.

7) Isn't this just McCarthyism?!

No. We are not accusing anyone of lawbreaking, treason, or "being a member of the Communist Party". We fiercely believe in the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and have no interest in seeing anyone punished for exercising them. Quite to the contrary.

However, when outlets and individuals echo, repeat, and refer their audience to Russian propaganda, we're going to highlight it. They have the right to do that, and we have the right to call them on it. We are also encouraging others to help us research this further, and we are calling for formal investigations by the US government, because we think the American people have the right to know when foreign governments are trying to mess with them.

Also, the kind of folks who make propaganda for brutal authoritarian oligarchies are often involved in a wide range of bad business. We strongly suspect that some of the individuals involved have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws, but determining that is up to the FBI and the DOJ.

8) What is the US government doing to combat this?

We assess that they have been trying to figure out what to do, on the one hand, while avoiding interference in the domestic political process and popular discourse, on the other. We are confidant that some parts of the US government are fully aware of what we have identified, but the risk-averse thing for them to do is quietly analyze what they see while letting it run its course. 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.

Right now they mostly just seem to be investigating and trying to figure out what to do: 
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said. The aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates cyber-tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia’s ability to spread disinformation. 
-- U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections, by Dana Priest, Ellen Nakashima and Tom Hamburger, on September 5 2016, in the Washington Post

However, due to legal constraints on US government action resulting from laws like the Smith-Mundt Act and the Privacy Act, US strategic communications efforts are limited in important ways, and in practice cannot be expected to effectively respond to this Russian effort in the very short term - especially before the November 2016 election, where such a response is sorely needed.

9) What should the US government be doing to combat this?

We call on Congressional leadership, and the Obama administration to:

10) What other countries are engaged in this and to what degree?

Other countries are engaged in vaguely similar efforts, but the tools used and objectives sought both vary widely. For example, the Obama administration lawfully employs US influence in numerous ways, generally focusing on supporting democratic governance, human rights, economic equity, and the rule of law. Some of those ways involve strategic communications efforts, like Voice of America and RFE/RL.

It is crucial to emphasize that there’s a stark contrast between US and Russian strategic communications. US efforts are focused on institution-building, and include, for example, supporting the creation of robust independent local media ecosystems in places where none otherwise exist. The US approach in Afghanistan exemplifies this:

...The funding from the United States and other Western governments, which gave rise to hundreds of media outlets, is dwindling. There are 34 news agencies, as well as 17 journalism training centers registered with the Ministry of Information and Culture. The centers include the Nai Institute, which works to promote an independent media and receives its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development through the nonprofit Internews Network.
-- With U.S. withdrawal looming, a nascent Afghan press is in peril, by Sudarsan Raghavan, on August 22 2015, in the Washington Post

Russian state propaganda, in contrast, focuses on building an ecosystem of mutually-supporting outlets that can muddy the waters by discrediting accurate news sources, encouraging apathy and confusion, and spreading contradictory information, innuendos, and calls for more detailed investigations. A common maneuver in Russian propaganda is to try and discredit conclusions drawn by other actors - for example by claiming that investigators have ulterior motives if they reach conclusions Russia doesn’t like. See the Reference Articles section of this site for more information.

11) Who put this together? Who is PropOrNot?

We are an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including professional experience in computer science, statistics, public policy, and national security affairs. We are currently volunteering our time and skills to identify propaganda - particularly Russian propaganda - targeting a U.S. audience. We collect public-record information connecting propaganda outlets to each other and their coordinators abroad, analyze what we find, act as a central repository and point of reference for related information, and organize efforts to oppose it.

Some of our members have been aware of Russian influence operations in a professional context for quite some time, but others have become increasingly aware of existing research on the subject in light of recent events in Ukraine, Western Europe Europe, and the Middle East. We formed PropOrNot as an effort to prevent propaganda from distorting U.S. political and policy discussions. We hope to strengthen our cultural immune systems against hostile influence and improve public discourse generally.

We are completely independent, because we not funded by anyone, and we have no formal institutional affiliations. We are nonpartisan, in that our team includes all major political persuasions except the pro-Russian kind. We are anonymous for now, because we are civilian Davids taking on a state-backed adversary Goliath, and we take things like the international Russian intimidation of journalists, “Pizzagate”-style mob harassment, and the assassination of Jo Cox very seriously, but we can in some cases provide background information about ourselves on a confidential basis to professional journalists. We do not publicly describe all of our sources and methods, although we describe most of them, and again, we can in some cases provide much more detail to journalists and other researchers in order to contextualize their reporting.

We are American, and our team has more than 30 members, including Ukrainian-American, Iraqi-American, and quite a few other varieties of folks. We are united in our overall objectives: to identify, help counter, and eventually deter Russian propaganda. Any time an outlet consistently echoes, repeats, or refers its audience to Russian propaganda, we’re going to analyze it and call it out. We work to shine a light on propaganda in order to prevent it from distorting political and policy discussions, to strengthen our cultural immune systems against hostile influence, and to improve public discourse generally.

12) Why do you focus so specifically on Russian propaganda? Isn't that hypocritical?

We focus on that because it is the most pressing threat right now, as far as kinds of propaganda are concerned. There are numerous other excellent media organizations which rigorously analyze and criticize United States government actions and policy, from all political angles, so we are content to leave that to them for the time being. Organizations have limited resources and require focus, especially volunteer ones. Russian propaganda targeting the US is our focus. We encourage others to focus on it as well.

13) What does the "Allies" section of your website imply?

It includes other projects whose work we admire, respect, and have been in some cases inspired by, with whom we have the shared goal of exposing Russian propaganda and influence operations. It does not imply any formal affiliation. We have changed the heading to "Related Projects" in order to clarify that.

14) What can I do to help?

The most important thing you can do is get the word out: Russia is trying to supplant actual American journalism with propaganda. Share this site,, on social media, by email, and however else you think appropriate - especially with reporters, politicians, celebrities, and other influencers.

Another very important thing you can do is respectfully identify and discuss Russian propaganda with people who you see credulously repeating it, if you think think they will listen. People will often have a hard time believing that their favorite "alternative" news sources are Russian-coopted disinformation, but encourage them to take a carefully critical look. Look for ridiculous pro-Russian articles and posts on their favorite sites, and ask them: "What exactly is that doing there!?"

Some people won't listen, and many accounts on social media and comments sections will be Russian trolls and propaganda bots themselves. Those folks cannot be reasoned with, because making propaganda is their job, so call them out. That's what the YYYcampaignYYY is for.

You can participate in the YYYcampaignYYY to help us highlight Russian propaganda accounts, websites, and purveyors by putting a YYY on either side of their name. It's straightforward.

15) Why did you name it the YYYcampaignYYY?

The YYYcampaignYYY is in part a direct response to the anti-Semitic, alt-right triple-parentheses (((echoes))) campaign, which, like it has done in the past, Russian propaganda uses and helped amplify. Unlike parentheses, YYYs show up in search queries and can be used to track crowdsourced identification of Russian propaganda over time. The YYY does not stand for anything specifically, but we are fans of the band The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who have nothing to do with Russian propaganda.