How to Unpack A Fake News Story

There is a panic-story going through the anti-American swamps of the Left about a provision within the 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act, H.R. 6393, that is intended to counter Russian influence operations inside the U.S. I found it posted in a couple of places on social media today. Like most fake news, there is a kernel of truth to the story — the bill exists, and there is a provision meant to counter Russian propaganda efforts — but it is in the presentation and framing where it goes completely off the rails and becomes propagandistic. Though self-delegitimizing upon close examination, it is a well-crafted piece of disinformation that highlights how dangerous and insidious the phenomenon of faked news and state-sponsored propaganda really is.

A representative piece of coverage comes from Russian propaganda website Sputnik (I won’t link it directly):

The witch hunt for “fake news” and “Russian propaganda” has been kicked up a notch, after the House passed a bill quietly tucked inside the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, designed to crack down on free speech and independent media.

I read this, and my first instict was a sharp inhale and a sinking gut feeling — a crackdown on free speech and independent media sounds awful! But, not recognizing the URL, I clicked on the “About” page and saw WeAreChange.org was founded by Luke Rudkowski, a zealous Ron Paul partisan and right-wing nutjob conspiracist. The organization itself is tied to the paranoid and anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement. The writer, Cassandra Fairbanks, is also a Donald Trump supporter and friend of infamous fascist troll Milo Yiannopolous.

These are big red warning flags, and researching the provenance of a website post is something you should do every time you see a link that seems to confirm your worst fear but has an unfamiliar address.

Unwilling to take this writer’s portrayal at face value, I decided to look at the actual text of the bill, and found it does nothing she described. There is no Congressional witch hunt against free speech, and Russian propaganda is a real thing that exists, so there is no need for scare quotes (remember this was originally published at a propaganda website operated by the government of Russia). The writer says a provision within the bill “lists media manipulation” and rattles off a bullet list from the bill.

The problem? The bill does not actually do that. “Media manipulation” is one bullet point on a list of activities of “active measures by Russia to exert covert influence.” To act shocked at the idea of considering media manipulation on a list of how Russia tries to exert covert influence is not just naive — it is bizarre (that this shock is being expressed by a columnist at a Russian media manipulation organization is even more bizarre).

The writer goes on to quote liberally from Globalresearch.ca, which is an uncurated agglomeration of conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxers, anti-semitism, and fringe left wing anti-government activism. Needless to say, they don’t fact-check their articles, and they do not adhere to any editorial standard at all apart from “dissent” from the “mainstream” no matter its form. This, too, is a red flag. A website like Globalresearch is heavily invested in re-sharing articles from places like Sputnik (there’s that Russia connection again).

The same thing applies to the writer’s other primary source of analysis, Zerohedge. A website founded by Wall Street traders disbarred for insider trading and ethical misconduct, Zerohedge is also obsessed with anti-American conspiracy theories — so much so that one of their main writers quit in disgust and exposed them.

“I can’t be a 24-hour cheerleader for Hezbollah, Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, and Trump anymore. It’ s wrong. Period. I know it gets you views now, but it will kill your brand over the long run,” Lokey texted Ivandjiiski. “This isn’t a revolution. It’s a joke.”

They are so reliably wrong in their analysis and predictions that debunking them has become its own cottage industry. But, like the best of the fake news, what they publish conforms to some gut-level emotional tug, and thus they prosper regardless.

Now, halfway through this article, we have a writer for a Russia-funded propaganda outlet, quoting liberally from two disinformation websites that traffic in conspiracism, crying havoc over a Congressional measure to create a committee to:

[M]eet on a regular basis… To counter active measures by Russia to exert covert influence, including by exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies.

This is not the threat to free speech and independent media that we were promised.

Unsurprisingly, what seems to have sparked the ire of this Russian propaganda writer is how narrowly the bill provision targets disinformatsiya that originates in Russia (it also includes expanded travel restrictions on Russian intelligence officials). This is unsurprising — again, she is a writer for Sputnik, which is a Russian state-funded propaganda outlet. This bill is a direct threat to her livelihood, which comes from participating in Russian propaganda directed against the U.S. The other two sources she relies on, Globalresearch and Zerohedge, also make serious cash by amplifying and reposting those same Russian propaganda stories.

The self-interest involved in this freakout is noteworthy, but that is not what makes it interesting. Rather, it comes from two angles: “fake news” (as a fuzzy, nebulous thing) is not a phenomenon limited to the right, and it is not always self-motivated Americans doing their own work. In this case, it is a network of websites that rely on the government of Russia for their writing prompts who are upset that Russian influence operations might come under increasing scrutiny by the U.S. government.

It can be difficult to identify and then respond to “fake news” when it gets posted. In this case, it is more properly called propaganda — both because of its origins in an actual Russian propaganda outlet, but also for the extremely tendentious framing and presentation of something that is real. It is not hoaxing, nor is it simply inventing things, pizzeria-style. Rather, it is more insidious: by framing its concern as civil liberties fears, and by presenting it as a direct threat to fundamental rights, it is able to pose as concerned citizen journalism rather than the state-funded attack on the country that is actually is.

There is no easy way to counterbalance this sort of effort. Debunking it, as I did above, takes time and effort, and the volume of falsehoods is so high that it is overwhelming to the sober-minded. But developing the skills to actually understand what this type of media does, what its characteristics are, and how to upend them so as to become better grounded in reality, is some of the most vital work we can be doing right now.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.