On Blacklists and Russia "Hacking" American Democracy

Americans don't need a Russian Twitter bot to undermine their trust in the Democratic Party.

With yet another round of spy-fed “Russia is subverting our democracy” stories hitting this week — this time with a totally bullshit Daily Beast smear job about Russian agents supposedly infiltrating lefty publications like Jacobin and In These Times, implying that Russia and the left shared some sort of dangerous anti-American political vision — I took a look at something I wrote nearly four years ago on the subject.

It was November 2016. Evgenia and I were living in St. Petersburg, Russia, then. She was shooting a short film about a murderous old lady, I was finishing Surveillance Valley. Donald Trump had won, but hadn’t yet been sworn in as President. Liberal America was in turmoil, and all sorts of panicked “Russia did it” stories were just beginning to swamp the news cycle. One of the most egregious was a rabid Washington Post article that laundered what was clearly an intel propaganda op: a shady media blacklist that accused some of America’s most respected alternative journalists and media outlets of being part of a Russian disinformation network.

At the time, it seemed crazy and dangerous, and it triggered an organized campaign to push back against the smears and to force the Washington Post to retract the story — although it didn’t work. Looking back on it on it now, that effort to force a retraction seems quaint and so innocent. These kinds of smears are now totally routine. They’ve been completely normalized. Other than a few snarky tweets, no one tries to bat them down anymore. Forget holding the news media “accountable.” It’s not even clear what that means these days.

Anyway, reading the short note I wrote about this story almost four years ago, it’s shocking to see that nothing has changed. It’s been the same story over and over and over again. You’d think that this nativist “Trump is a Russian asset” bubble would deflate at some point. But no, it just keeps on going. And why not? It’s been a great diversion for the Democratic Party and big money maker for our degenerate news media. So they keep working the pumps. It’ll never end.

—Yasha Levine

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Yasha Levine • November 25, 2016

Where’s the evidence?

So much effort has been thrown at implicating the Russians in some way and none of the evidence has stuck — time and time again the evidence fizzles and people move onto the next big scandal that also evaporates on closer inspection. Like the most recent WaPo story alleging that Russia launched a wide ranging propaganda campaign to elect Donald Trump: bankrolling American journalists to work as Russia's willing collaborators, sowing fear and doubt, baselessly undermining Hillary Clinton and supposedly weakening the very foundation of American democracy. 

The paper offered no evidence to back up its shocking claims, but relied on secret claims made by a shady anonymous group called PropOrNot, which compiled a blacklist of American news outlets it considers to be Russian agents engaging in treason. Within a day of the article coming out, PropOrNot's story is already unraveling. The group admitted to lying about its partnering organizations and refuses to disclose why its media blacklist of “Russian agents” contains some of the best journalists in recent history: Robert Parry (who helped break the Iran-Contra scandal), Robert Scheer (who helped expose CIA funding of student groups in the 1960s as editor at Ramparts) and Yves Smith (the fearless founder of an invaluable and respected financial blog, nakedcapitalism.com). It’s shocking and disturbing that WaPo would smear respected journalists as traitors with no evidence.

Details about this group continue to emerge. We know that some members of this anonymous group are current and former government employees, including those that used to work for the State Department. It also appears that PropOrNot is connected to groups funded the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a CIA spinoff that manages the U.S. government's foreign propaganda division. If true, that would make PropOrNot's activities illegal — in violation of a federal law that prohibits the BBG from intentionally influencing or swaying public opinion inside the United States. Creating blacklists of American journalists, labelling them as traitors and then circulating this information to American newspapers would certainly fall into that category. 

Maybe Russia has the means to “hack” America’s elections, but it’s hard to talk about it without real evidence. Sure, Russia’s been getting into the psyops game much more lately — with fake and biased news, comment trolls and Twitter bots. It’s cheap and effective, and good at exploiting people’s increasing lack trust in their country's institutions and political process. But in reality it seems to have very little penetration of America's media landscape. Let's face it: life is miserable and getting more miserable by the day for most Americans — and no one in power seems to care one way or another. Americans don't need a Russian Twitter bot to undermine their trust in the Democratic Party. And anyway, this kind of propaganda psyops isn't anything that the United States isn’t doing at this very moment against Russia on a much bigger level — just look at Tor, Internet Freedom and Radio Free Europe.

Put it this way: if Russian intel hacked Trump to victory and Trump is now Putin’s tool, well, the NSA and CIA and U.S. Naval intelligence and President Obama must be with the Russians on this. No one has said a thing. They’re all moving with the transition as normal. Whereas if it was really true, this info would not be coming from some anonymous outfit set up last week. The U.S. would be gearing up for real war with Russia.

I'm going to write more about this, but I just needed to get this off my chest. 

—Yasha Levine

UPDATE: Max Blumenthal debunked PropOrNot blacklist smears in Alternet. Mathew Ingram did the same in Fortune. Over at the New Yorker, Adrian Chen digs into the group's government and State Department ties: “The spokesman said that the group began with fewer than a dozen members, who came together while following Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine . . . Two of the group’s members, an ex-State Department employee and an I.T. researcher. . .” Mark Ames also dug into the story and found…the “Site Behind Washington Post’s McCarthyite Blacklist Appears To Be Linked to Ukrainian Fascists and CIA Spies.”

Originally published in November 2016.