Official Washington’s “Info-Wars”

Authored by William Blum, originally posted at Strategic-Culture.org,

On November 16, at a State Department press briefing, department spokesperson John Kirby was having one of his frequent adversarial dialogues with Gayane Chichakyan, a reporter for RT (Russia Today); this time concerning U.S. charges of Russia bombing hospitals in Syria and blocking the U.N. from delivering aid to the trapped population.

When Chichakyan asked for some detail about these charges, Kirby replied: “Why don’t you ask your defense ministry?”

GC: Do you – can you give any specific information on when Russia or the Syrian Government blocked the UN from delivering aid? Just any specific information.

 

KIRBY: There hasn’t been any aid delivered in the last month.

 

GC: And you believe it was blocked exclusively by Russia and the Syrian Government?

 

KIRBY: There’s no question in our mind that the obstruction is coming from the regime and from Russia. No question at all.…

 

MATTHEW LEE (Associated Press): Let me –- hold on, just let me say: Please be careful about saying “your defense minister” and things like that. I mean, she’s a journalist just like the rest of us are, so it’s -– she’s asking pointed questions, but they’re not –

 

KIRBY: From a state-owned -– from a state-owned –

 

LEE: But they’re not –

 

KIRBY: From a state-owned outlet, Matt.

 

LEE: But they’re not –

 

KIRBY: From a state-owned outlet that’s not independent.

 

LEE: The questions that she’s asking are not out of line.

 

KIRBY: I didn’t say the questions were out of line…

 

KIRBY: I’m sorry, but I’m not going to put Russia Today on the same level with the rest of you who are representing independent media outlets.

One has to wonder if State Department spokesperson Kirby knows that in 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking about RT, declared: “The Russians have opened an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it is quite instructive.”

I also wonder how Mr. Kirby deals with reporters from the BBC, a STATE-OWNED television and radio entity in the U.K., broadcasting in the U.S. and all around the world.

Or the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation, described by Wikipedia as follows: “The corporation provides television, radio, online and mobile services throughout metropolitan and regional Australia, as well as overseas… and is well regarded for quality and reliability as well as for offering educational and cultural programming that the commercial sector would be unlikely to supply on its own.”

There’s also Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty (Central/Eastern Europe), and Radio Marti (Cuba); all (U.S.) state-owned, none “independent”, but all deemed worthy enough by the United States to feed to the world.

And let’s not forget what Americans have at home: PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and NPR (National Public Radio), which would have a near-impossible time surviving without large federal government grants. How independent does this leave them? Has either broadcaster ever unequivocally opposed a modern American war? There’s good reason NPR has long been known as National Pentagon Radio. But it’s part of American media’s ideology to pretend that it doesn’t have any ideology.

As to the non-state American media … There are about 1,400 daily newspapers in the United States. Can you name a single paper, or a single TV network, that was unequivocally opposed to the American wars carried out against Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Panama, Grenada, and Vietnam while they were happening, or shortly thereafter? Or even opposed to any two of these seven wars? How about one?

In 1968, six years into the Vietnam War, the Boston Globe (Feb. 18, 1968) surveyed the editorial positions of 39 leading U.S. papers concerning the war and found that “none advocated a pull-out.” Has the phrase “invasion of Vietnam” ever appeared in the U.S. mainstream media?

In 2003, leading cable station MSNBC took the much-admired Phil Donahue off the air because of his opposition to the calls for war in Iraq. Mr. Kirby would undoubtedly call MSNBC “independent.”

If the American mainstream media were officially state-controlled, would they look or sound significantly different when it comes to U.S. foreign policy?

New Cold War Propaganda

On Nov. 25, the Washington Post ran an article entitled: “Research ties ‘fake news’ to Russia.” It’s all about how sources in Russia are flooding American media and the Internet with phony stories designed as “part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders.”

The Washington Post building in downtown Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Washington Post)

The Washington Post building in downtown Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Washington Post)

“The sophistication of the Russian tactics,” the article says, “may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on ‘fake news’.”

The Post states that the Russian tactics included “penetrating the computers of election officials in several states and releasing troves of hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton in the final months of her campaign.” (Heretofore this had been credited to Wikileaks.)

The story is simply bursting with anti-Russian references:

  • –An online magazine header – “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy.”
  • –“the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns.”
  • –“more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season.”
  • –“stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.”
  • –“The Russian campaign during this election season … worked by harnessing the online world’s fascination with ‘buzzy’ content that is surprising and emotionally potent, and tracks with popular conspiracy theories about how secret forces dictate world events.”
  • –“Russian-backed phony news to outcompete traditional news organizations for audience”
  • –“They use our technologies and values against us to sow doubt. It’s starting to undermine our democratic system.”
  • –“Russian propaganda operations also worked to promote the ‘Brexit’ departure of Britain from the European Union.”
  • –“Some of these stories originated with RT and Sputnik, state-funded Russian information services that mimic the style and tone of independent news organizations yet sometimes include false and misleading stories in their reports.”
  • –“a variety of other false stories — fake reports of a coup launched at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and stories about how the United States was going to conduct a military attack and blame it on Russia”

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, is quoted saying he was “struck by the overt support that Sputnik expressed for Trump during the campaign, even using the #CrookedHillary hashtag pushed by the candidate.” McFaul said Russian propaganda typically is aimed at weakening opponents and critics.

“They don’t try to win the argument. It’s to make everything seem relative. It’s kind of an appeal to cynicism.” [Cynicism? Heavens! What will those Moscow fascists/communists think of next?]

The Post did, however, include the following: “RT disputed the findings of the researchers in an e-mail on Friday, saying it played no role in producing or amplifying any fake news stories related to the U.S. election.” RT was quoted: “It is the height of irony that an article about ‘fake news’ is built on false, unsubstantiated claims. RT adamantly rejects any and all claims and insinuations that the network has originated even a single ‘fake story’ related to the US election.”

It must be noted that the Washington Post article fails to provide a single example showing how the actual facts of a specific news event were rewritten or distorted by a Russian agency to produce a news event with a contrary political message.

What then lies behind such blatant anti-Russian propaganda? In the new Cold War such a question requires no answer. The new Cold War by definition exists to discredit Russia simply because it stands in the way of American world domination. In the new Cold War, the political spectrum in the mainstream media runs the gamut from A to B.

Chinese Developers Rethink U.S. Real Estate Projects: “I See Danger…U.S. Real Estate Is Peaking”

For months we’ve been warning that real estate markets in NYC and San Francisco, among others, are getting ready to rollover as the market is about to be flooded with new supply of luxury apartments (see here and here).  Real estate in both markets are just starting to show signs of cracking as the apartments sales cycle is getting stretched out and pricing growth has stalled. 

Now, per an article from the Wall Street Journal, wealthy Chinese real estate investors are admitting that the jig is up in large cities like New York and are running for the hills.  With a substantial amount of capacity expected to come online over the next several quarters and a growth cycle that is entering its 8th year, one Chinese real estate investor admits “you get a sense now that it’s peaking.”

Swelling supply of high-end New York condominiums could result in losses for some Chinese developers, analysts said. A push to partner with U.S. developers on other projects, meanwhile, has brought unexpected legal spats and other delays.

 

“I see a danger in the real-estate market in the U.S.,” said John Liang, Xinyuan Real Estate’s managing director of U.S. operations. “With its seven- to eight-year cycle, you get a sense now that it’s peaking.” He added that he sees value in middle-tier residential properties in Manhattan and Queens.

 

“Right now the prices are really high,” said Zhang Xin, chief executive of Soho China, whose family invested in a stake in Manhattan’s General Motors Building in 2013. “I would be very cautious if I were to make a large investment in New York’s real estate today.”

NYC

 

Of course, Manhattan isn’t the only Burrough experiencing a supply glut.  Forest City Realty was just forced to take a $300mm impairment charge on a joint venture with a Shanghai-based development company after “unprecedented rental supply in downtown Brooklyn” forced the copanies to delay development.

CL Investment, which has three other high-end residential projects in Manhattan, plans to keep the office space as part of efforts to diversify, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

 

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a deal between Shanghai-based, state-owned conglomerate Greenland Holding Group and Forest City Realty Trust on a 22-acre, 15-building mixed-use project in various stages of construction is facing stiff headwinds.

 

Forest City earlier this month said it took a $307.6 million impairment charge for the project, called Pacific Park Brooklyn, and said it plans “to delay future vertical development.”

 

“We revised the schedule due to a number of factors, including almost unprecedented concentrations of new rental supply in downtown Brooklyn, which will take time for the market to absorb,” said Forest City CEO David LaRue.

Just to add insult to injury, the softening real estate market is coming just as China is once again looking to tighten rules on capital investments outside of China. 

The headwinds come at a time when Beijing once again is planning to tighten its rules on Chinese investment capital leaving the country.

 

The Chinese State Council is expected to soon announce new reviews of foreign acquisitions of $10 billion or more and property investments by state-owned firms of more than $1 billion, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

 

Total Chinese direct investment in U.S. real-estate and hospitality assets is nearly $12.6 billion, accounting for nearly a fifth of total Chinese investment in the U.S. since 1990, according to a recent report from the Rhodium Group and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Most of the activity has taken place since 2010 and is concentrated in areas such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Of course, no matter what kind of capital controls are put in place, just like the Vancouver and Sydney real estate markets, we suspect that when Chinese money needs to be laundered, people will find a way.  The only question is now that yet another bubble has run its course, where subsequent bubbles will emerge.

* * *

For those who missed it, below is what we recently wrote after 3Q16 apartment closings plunged 18.6% in NYC.

New York City apartment owners should take note of the latest 3Q16 “Elliman Report” on Manhattan real estate sales because the market looks to be in free fall.  In fact, the number of apartment closings plunged 18.6% YoY while apartments sat on the market an average of 8.2% longer.  Inventory also spiked with re-sale inventory up 8.2% YoY and new development inventory up a massive 27.2%.   

The number of re-sales has fallen year over year in each of the last four quarters at an increasing rate.  Listing inventory reflected significant differences in the rate of growth between re-sale and new development.  Re-sale inventory expanded 8.2% to 5,290 while new development inventory surged 27.2% to 973 respectively from the same period a year ago.

Median sales prices did increase YoY by 7.6% but collapsed QoQ despite a massive surge in pricing on the luxury end of the market.

NYC Real Estate

 

The re-sale market looks even more bleak, on a standalone basis, as the overall numbers above are skewed by sales of super-luxury new development units.  The number of re-sale closings collapsed over 20% YoY while days on the market increased 7.5%

NYC Real Estate

 

All segments of the market exhibited volume weakness with co-op sales down 17.1% YoY on a 14.1% increase in listing days and a modest 1.4% increase in median sales price.

NYC Real Estate

 

Condo sales declined 20.1% YoY on a 2.4% increase in listing days and a 6.7% increase in median sales price.  Meanwhile, condo inventory rose over 15%.

NYC Real Estate

 

And, of course, the luxury market seemed to hold up the best in 3Q with volumes still weak at -18.6% but median pricing up 23.9% and listing inventory down YoY.

NYC Real Estate

 

In conclusion, the lesson seems to be that the marginal New York City buyer has been priced out of the market (volume down 20%) while sellers have not yet accepted that the bubble has burst deciding instead to maintain listing prices while letting their apartments sit on the market longer amid growing inventory levels.  Meanwhile, the luxury market is the only segment that seems to be holding up which only serves to prove that Chinese billionaires still have cash they would like to hide in the U.S.

Obama Supports Forcing Women To Register For Military Draft

Submitted by Jason Ditz via AntiWar.com,

Continuing the debate over a massive expansion of the Selective Service, the White House today announced that President Obama is in favor of expanding registration for the military draft to include all women when they turn 18.

"As old barriers for military service are being removed, the administration supports — as a logical next step — women registering for the Selective Service," said Ned Price, a spokesman for Obama's National Security Council.

 

The White House had previously expressed neutrality on the controversy, but took a position in a statement to USA TODAY on Thursday.

 

Under current law, women can volunteer to serve in the military but aren't required to register for the draft. All adult men must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

The announcement comes ahead of a planned House vote on a bill to study the expansion of the military draft, or to potentially eliminate the Selective Service outright. The White House has repeatedly insisted they have no plans to bring the draft back, but want to force everyone to register anyhow to “foster a sense of public service.”

The measure had roiled social conservatives, who decried it as another step toward the blurring of gender lines akin to allowing transgender people to use public lavatories and locker rooms. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, spoke for a number of Republicans when he described the provision as "coercing America's daughters" into draft registration.

 

But proponents of including women in the draft pool viewed the requirement as a sensible step toward gender equality. They pointed to the Pentagon's decision last year to open all front-line combat jobs to women as removing any justification for gender restrictions on registration.

The administration opened all combat roles to women, and officials say they believe expanding the registration system is a “logical next step,” ensuring “gender equality” in forcing the public to register for potential conscription in future wars.

Though there is some call from some in Congress to do away with the Selective Service system entirely as an unused relic of the past, there appears to be considerable support for keeping it in place despite its practical uselessness, simply on the grounds that it doesn’t cost that much.

The Selective Service system was eliminated by President Ford in 1975, two years after the last conscription lottery. President Carter brought the system back in 1980 as part of a show of hostility toward the Soviet Union over the invasion of Afghanistan. The system has remained in place ever since, even though the Soviet occupation ended, the Soviet Union fell, and the US has been occupying Afghanistan themselves for the last 15 years.

Stanford Study Reveals California Pensions Underfunded By $1 Trillion Or $93k Per Household

Earlier today the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy highlighted an updated pension study, released by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, which revealed some fairly startling realities about California’s public pension underfunding levels.  After averaging $77,700 per household in 2014, the amount of public pension underfunding for the state of California jumped to a staggering $92,748 per household in 2015.  But don’t worry, we’re sure pension managers can grow their way out of the problem…hedge fund returns have been stellar recently, right?

Stanford University’s pension tracker database pegs the market value of California’s total pension debt at $1 trillion or $93,000 per California household in 2015. 

 

In 2014, California’s total pension debt was calculated at $77,700 per household, but has increased dramatically in response to abysmal investment returns at California’s public pension funds that hover at or below zero percent annual returns.

 

The Pension Tracker database (www.pensiontracker.org) is maintained by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and is intended to help localize pension data by providing the ability to look up the market value of pension debt in any locality in California.

Looking back to 2008, the underfunding levels of California’s public pension have skyrocketed 157% on abysmal asset returns and growing liabilities resulting from lower discount rates. 

Perhaps this helps shed some light on why CalPERS is having such a difficult time with what should have been an easy decision to lower their long-term return expectations to 6% from 7.5% (see “CalPERS Weighs Pros/Cons Of Setting Reasonable Return Targets Vs. Maintaining Ponzi Scheme“)…$93k per household just seems so much more “manageable” than $150k.

Pension

 

Oddly enough, California isn’t even the worst off when it comes to pension debt as Alaska leads the pack with just over $110,000 per household.

Pension

 

Of course, at this point the question isn’t “if” these ponzi schemes will blow up but rather which one will go first?  We have our money on Dallas Police and Fire

Clinton & Trump Aides Forum Devolves Into Screaming Match – “I Would Rather Lose Than Win The Way You Did”

How was this ever going to end well? An election post-mortem forum erupted into a shouting match as top strategists of Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused their Republican counterparts of fueling and legitimizing racism to elect Donald Trump. Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri exclaimed "I would rather lose than win the way you guys did," to which Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, fumed "I can tell you are angry, but wow… Will you ever accept the election results?" And it went down-hill from there…

As NBC News reports, a Harvard panel that traditionally writes the first draft of presidential campaign history devolved into a shouting match between Trump and Clinton aides on Thursday in a raw, emotional display echoing the divisive campaign.

 Jennifer Palmieri, who was Hillary Clinton's communications director, zeroed in on Steve Bannon, the incoming chief strategist for President-elect Donald Trump who once ran the web site Breitbart.

 

"If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost," said Palmieri, one of six Clinton aides who sat across tables from top Trump campaign staff at a forum moderated by three journalists, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell among them. "I would rather lose than win the way you guys did."

 

Kellyanne Conway, who managed Trump's campaign, was visibly angry and indignantly interrupted. "Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?"

 

"You did, Kellyanne. You did," Palmieri said, as other Clinton aides chimed in in the affirmative. With only two microphones allowed to be open at any given time, the shouting match was so heated it became difficult to follow.

 

"Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters? How about, it's Hillary Clinton, she doesn't connect with people? How about, they have nothing in common with her? How about, she doesn't have an economic message?" Conway said.

 

"There were dog whistles," said Clinton strategist Joel Benenson at one point.

 

Said Conway: "Guys, I can tell you are angry, but wow. Hashtag he's your president…will you ever accept the election results? Will you tell your protesters that he's their president, too?"

Exposing a somewhat stunning level of cognitive dissonance, seemingly blaming the media, The Washington Post reports that Clinton’s campaign aides insisted, again and again, that their candidate had been held to a different standard than the other contenders — as evidenced by the controversy over her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

Palmieri said that many political journalists had a personal dislike for the Democratic nominee and predicted that the email issue will go down in history as “the most grossly overrated, over-covered and most destructive story in all of presidential politics.”

 

“If I made one mistake, it was legitimizing the way the press covered this story line,” Palmieri said.

 

Mook added that Trump deftly used his rally speeches to “switch up the news cycle.”

 

“The media by and large was not covering what Hillary Clinton was choosing to say,” Mook said. “They were treating her like the likely winner, and they were constantly trying to unearth secrets and expose.”

 

For instance, Mook posited that the media did not scrutinize Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns as intensively as the issue of Clinton’s private email server.

 

Conway retorted: “Oh, my God, that question was vomited to me every day on TV.”

Joel Benenson, Clinton’s chief strategist, meanwhile, served notice that the election may be over but that the battles it spawned are not.

“You guys won, that’s clear,” Benenson said. “But let’s be honest. Don’t act as if you have a popular mandate for your message. The fact of the matter is that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump.”

 

At which point Conway turned to her side and said: “Hey, guys, we won. You don’t have to respond. He was the better candidate. That’s why he won.”

The Propaganda About Russian Propaganda

Authored by Adrian Chen, originally posted at The New Yorker,

In late October, I received an e-mail from “The PropOrNot Team,” which described itself as a “newly-formed independent team of computer scientists, statisticians, national security professionals, journalists and political activists, dedicated to identifying propaganda—particularly Russian propaganda targeting a U.S. audience.” PropOrNot said that it had identified two hundred Web sites that “qualify as Russian propaganda outlets.” The sites’ reach was wide—they are read by at least fifteen million Americans. PropOrNot said that it had “drafted a preliminary report about this for the office of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), and after reviewing our report they urged us to get in touch with you and see about making it a story.”

Reporting on Internet phenomena, one learns to be wary of anonymous collectives freely offering the fruits of their research. I told PropOrNot that I was probably too busy to write a story, but I asked to see the report. In reply, PropOrNot asked me to put the group in touch with “folks at the NYTimes, WaPo, WSJ, and anyone else who you think would be interested.” Deep in the middle of another project, I never followed up.

PropOrNot managed to connect with the Washington Post on its own. Last week, the Post published a story based in part on PropOrNot’s research. Headlined “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say,” the report claimed that a number of researchers had uncovered a “sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign” that spread fake-news articles across the Internet with the aim of hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump. It prominently cited the PropOrNot research. The story topped the Post’s most-read list, and was shared widely by prominent journalists and politicians on Twitter. The former White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, “Why isn’t this the biggest story in the world right now?”

Vladimir Putin and the Russian state’s affinity for Trump has been well-reported. During the campaign, countless stories speculated on connections between Trump and Putin and alleged that Russia contributed to Trump’s election using propaganda and subterfuge. Clinton made it a major line of attack. But the Post’s story had the force of revelation, thanks in large part to the apparent scientific authority of PropOrNot’s work: the group released a thirty-two-page report detailing its methodology, and named names with its list of two hundred suspect news outlets. The organization’s anonymity, which a spokesperson maintained was due to fear of Russian hackers, added a cybersexy mystique.

But a close look at the report showed that it was a mess. “To be honest, it looks like a pretty amateur attempt,” Eliot Higgins, a well-respected researcher who has investigated Russian fake-news stories on his Web site, Bellingcat, for years, told me. “I think it should have never been an article on any news site of any note.”

The most striking issue is the overly broad criteria used to identify which outlets spread propaganda. According to PropOrNot’s recounting of its methodology, the third step it uses is to check if a site has a history of “generally echoing the Russian propaganda ‘line’,” which includes praise for Putin, Trump, Bashar al-Assad, Syria, Iran, China, and “radical political parties in the US and Europe.” When not praising, Russian propaganda includes criticism of the United States, Barack Obama, Clinton, the European Union, Angela Merkel, NATO, Ukraine, “Jewish people,” U.S. allies, the mainstream media, Democrats, and “the center-right or center-left, and moderates of all stripes.”

These criteria, of course, could include not only Russian state-controlled media organizations, such as Russia Today, but nearly every news outlet in the world, including the Post itself. Yet PropOrNot claims to be uninterested in differentiating between organizations that are explicit tools of the Russian state and so-called “useful idiots,” which echo Russian propaganda out of sincerely held beliefs. “We focus on behavior, not motivation,” they write.

To PropOrNot, simply exhibiting a pattern of beliefs outside the political mainstream is enough to risk being labelled a Russian propagandist. Indeed, the list of “propaganda outlets” has included respected left-leaning publications like CounterPunch and Truthdig, as well as the right-wing behemoth Drudge Report. The list is so broad that it can reveal absolutely nothing about the structure or pervasiveness of Russian propaganda. “It’s so incredibly scattershot,” Higgins told me. “If you’ve ever posted a pro-Russian post on your site, ever, you’re Russian propaganda.” In a scathing takedown on The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton wrote that PropOrNot “embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist.”

By overplaying the influence of Russia’s disinformation campaign, the report also plays directly into the hands of the Russian propagandists that it hopes to combat. “Think about RT and Sputnik’s goals, how they report their success to Putin,” Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst and a visiting fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told me. “Their success is that they have penetrated their agenda, that they have become an issue for the West. And this is exactly what happened.” (Kristine Coratti Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Post, said, “The Post reported on the work of four separate sets of researchers. PropOrNot was one. The Post reviewed its findings, and our questions about them were answered satisfactorily during the course of multiple interviews.”)

In a phone interview, a spokesman for PropOrNot brushed off the criticism. “If there’s a pattern of activity over time, especially combined with underlying technical tells, then, yeah, we’re going to highlight it,” he said. He argued that Russian disinformation is an enormous problem that requires direct confrontation. “It’s been clear for a while that Russia is a little braver, more aggressive, more willing to push the boundaries of what was previously acceptable.” He said that, to avoid painting outlets with too broad a brush, the group employs a sophisticated analysis that relies on no single criterion in isolation.

Yet, when pressed on the technical patterns that led PropOrNot to label the Drudge Report a Russian propaganda outlet, he could point only to a general perception of bias in its content. “They act as a repeater to a significant extent, in that they refer audiences to sort of Russian stuff,” he said. “There’s no a-priori reason, stepping back, that a conservative news site would rely on so many Russian news sources. What is up with that?” I asked to see the raw data PropOrNot used to determine that the Drudge Report was a Russian-propaganda outlet. The spokesman said that the group would release it to the public eventually, but could not share it at the moment: “That takes a lot of work, and we’re an all-volunteer crew.” Instead, he urged me to read the Drudge Report myself, suggesting that its nature would be apparent.

On its Twitter account, PropOrNot, in support of its research, cites an article I wrote for the Times Magazine, in 2015, about an online propaganda operation in Russia. But my investigation was focussed on a concrete organization that directly distributed disinformation. I was able to follow links from Twitter accounts and Web sites to a building in St. Petersburg where hundreds of young Russians worked to churn out propaganda. Despite the impressive-looking diagrams and figures in its report, PropOrNot’s findings rest largely on innuendo and conspiracy thinking.

Another major issue with PropOrNot is that its members insist on anonymity. If one aims to cut through a disinformation campaign, transparency is paramount. Otherwise you just stoke further paranoia.The Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev, who debunks Kremlin propaganda on his site, Noodleremover, floated the possibility that PropOrNot was Ukrainians waging a disinformation campaign against Russia. The PropOrNot spokesman would speak to me only on the condition of anonymity and revealed only bare biographical details on background. “Are you familiar with the assassination of Jo Cox?” he asked, when I asked why his group remained in the shadows, referring to the British M.P. murdered by a right-wing extremist. “Well, that is a big thing for us. Basically, Russia uses crazy people to kill its enemies.”

I can report that the spokesman was an American man, probably in his thirties or forties, who was well versed in Internet culture and swore enthusiastically. He said that the group numbered about forty people. “I can say we have people who work for major tech companies and people who have worked for the government in different regards, but we’re all acting in a private capacity,” he said. “One thing we’re all in agreement about is that Russia should not be able to fuck with the American people. That is not cool.” The spokesman said that the group began with fewer than a dozen members, who came together while following Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. The crisis was accompanied by a flood of disinformation designed to confuse Ukraine and its allies. “That was a big wake-up call to us. It’s like, wait a minute, Russia is creating this very effective fake-news propaganda in conjunction with their military operation on the ground,” the spokesman said. “My God, if they can do that there, why can’t they do it here?” PropOrNot has said that the group includes Ukrainian-Americans, though the spokesman laughed at the suggestion that they were Ukrainian agents. PropOrNot has claimed total financial and editorial independence.

Given PropOrNot’s shadowy nature and the shoddiness of its work, I was puzzled by the group’s claim to have worked with Senator Ron Wyden’s office. In an e-mail, Keith Chu, a spokesman for Wyden, told me that the PropOrNot team reached out to the office in late October. Two of the group’s members, an ex-State Department employee and an I.T. researcher, described their research. “It sounded interesting, and tracked with reporting on Russian propaganda efforts,” Chu wrote. After a few phone calls with the members, it became clear that Wyden’s office could not validate the group’s findings. Chu advised the group on press strategy and suggested some reporters that it might reach out to. “I told them that if they had findings, some kind of document that they could share with reporters, that would be helpful,” he told me. Chu said that Wyden’s office played no role in creating the report and didn’t endorse the findings. Nonetheless, he added, “There has been bipartisan interest in these kind of Russian efforts, including interference in elections, for some time now, including from Senator Wyden.” This week, Wyden and six other senators sent a letter to the White House asking it to declassify information “concerning the Russian Government and the U.S. election.”

The story of PropOrNot should serve as a cautionary tale to those who fixate on malignant digital influences as a primary explanation for Trump’s stunning election. The story combines two of the most popular technological villains of post-election analysis – fake news and Russian subterfuge – into a single tantalizing package. Like the most effective Russian propaganda, the report weaved together truth and misinformation.

Bogus news stories, which overwhelmingly favored Trump, did flood social media throughout the campaign, and the hack of the Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s e-mail seems likely to have been the work of Russian intelligence services. But, as harmful as these phenomena might be, 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. Vasily Gatov told me, “To blame internal social effects on external perpetrators is very Putinistic.”