A lengthy editor’s note appeared Wednesday atop Craig Timberg‘s November 24 Washington Post story claiming that a Russian propaganda campaign aided the spread of “fake news” in the 2016 presidential election. The note lays some interesting distance between the newspaper and the work its article draws from.
Editor’s Note: The Washington Post on Nov. 24 published a story on the work of four sets of researchers who have examined what they say are Russian propaganda efforts to undermine American democracy and interests. One of them was PropOrNot, a group that insists on public anonymity, which issued a report identifying more than 200 websites that, in its view, wittingly or unwittingly published or echoed Russian propaganda. A number of those sites have objected to being included on PropOrNot’s list, and some of the sites, as well as others not on the list, have publicly challenged the group’s methodology and conclusions. The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so. Since publication of The Post’s story, PropOrNot has removed some sites from its list.
The note follows intense criticism of the article. It was “rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations,” Intercept reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton wrote, calling PropOrNot, one of the groups whose research was cited in Timberg’s piece, “anonymous cowards.” One of the sites PropOrNot cited as Russian-influenced was the Drudge Report.
The piece’s description of some sharers of bogus news as “useful idiots” could “theoretically include anyone on any social-media platform who shares news based on a click-bait headline,” Mathew Ingram wrote for Fortune.
But perhaps the biggest issue was PropOrNot. As Adrian Chen wrote for the New Yorker, its methods were really messy, and verification of its work was nearly impossible. While “fake news” worked to Trump’s advantage, and email hacks of Clinton staffers pointed to Russian bad hombres, Chen writes, “the prospect of legitimate dissenting voices being labelled fake news or Russian propaganda by mysterious groups of ex-government employees, with the help of a national newspaper, is even scarier.”