In April of this year, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee issued a two-part report concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign. While ruling out the kind of collusion that MSNBC has been touting for the past four years, volume two is of some interest since it coincides with the front-page news this week that Facebook and Twitter are warning of Russian interference once again.
Like in 2016, the report accuses the Internet Research Agency in Russia for manufacturing fake social media accounts that spread talking points to boost Donald Trump’s fortunes. Going even further, the Russians hired real Americans to write for a new website called PeaceData that had the appearance of a legitimate news organization.
Graphika, a company specialing in tracking and exposing Internet disinformation, issued a blockbuster report that must have factored in Facebook and Twitter’s decision to cancel PeaceData. After reviewing their evidence, I am not convinced that such a botched operation could threaten American “democracy.”
The PeaceData staff was as bogus as those of the predatory journals that exploit tenure-track professors desperate to build a publication record. Generative Adversarial Networks, a type of AI that can produce lifelike images of faces, made staff photos out of thin air. Freelance journalists ended up writing for PeaceData, some of whom were young, recently laid-off writers desperate to rekindle their careers. Like junior professors writing for bogus journals, they threw caution to the wind. Offered $250 per article, they jumped at the opportunity. One told The Guardian, “I was just trying to get more bylines and get paid to do what I want to do. I’ve interacted with editors who do far less than what they were doing, and they paid faster than some publications … I’m a freelance writer – I’m used to being taken advantage of.”
The N.Y. Times profiled 50-year old freelancer Colin Munro Wood yesterday. He told the paper that editors wanted him to remove critical references to Donald Trump. He also found them a bit odd. Many of their emails “had obvious mistakes in grammar and strange syntax.” After Wood took umbrage at what one editor said, PeaceData explained that the editor was Romanian and didn’t have a good grasp of the English language.
The Times is trying to portray PeaceData as a tool of Trump’s re-election campaign, but even a cursory glance reveals many articles trashing the President. A search on “Trump” produces material that are the mainstay of Salon and AlterNet: “Rigging the Election: Trump Undermines USPS in an Effort to Block Mail-in Voting,” “Portland Protests: Authoritarian Trump Is Worse Than the Demagogue,” and “Boogaloo Movement: USA Far Right is Growing Thanks to Donald Trump.”
PeaceData, a website I never heard of before the news broke, defended themselves in a brief statement: “We’re shocked and appalled! We can proudly say that it’s an ugly lie. Our news site is created by the people and for the people to spread the word about peace and expose greedy corporate powers and warmongers all over the world.”
When you go to their “About” page, the first thing you’ll see is “Page Not Found,” not a very encouraging sign, especially since you can’t spot a single staff member. They probably scrubbed the AI photos and the staff members’ phony background after the Graphika report came out. Even more incredibly, when you click the Donate button, nothing pops up—a function no doubt of the rubles poured into their bank account being more than sufficient.
Politically, the only PeaceData articles with a pro-Russian tilt will be familiar to anybody who follows (or in my case, monitors) Grayzone. Articles defend Assad from charges that he used chlorine gas in Douma, warnings that the opposition to Lukashenko is a Western conspiracy, and declarations of China’s innocence from anti-Uighur repression. (They lifted the item on the Uighurs from Grayzone.)
Like Grayzone, PeaceData also has informative and trustworthy articles. For example, one on the home page titled “US Workers, Minorities Continuously Face Housing Insecurity during the Pandemic” is beyond reproach, as is at least 90 percent of the others. Grayzone’s average is more like 50 percent.
When you read the Graphika report, you are at a loss to figure out how such reporting can help Trump win an election. Isn’t an article about housing insecurity just the sort of thing that would make you want to vote for Biden, at least if you are not a brontosaurus Marxist like me? Graphika stated:
The English-language content on Biden and Harris was noteworthy for its hostile tone…One article by a guest writer accused the pair of “submission to right-wing populism […] as much about preserving careers as it is winning votes.” Camille François, the chief innovation officer for Graphika, stated that “The operation seemed designed to divide Democratic supporters and to depress support for Biden and Harris.”
Since PeaceData used social media and its website to flagellate Donald Trump, you’d think that Graphika would at least try to explain why dividing Democratic supporters would mean a boost in votes for Trump. Unless, of course, the whole idea was to convince many of them to vote for Howie Hawkins, who gets favorable mentions in CounterPunch—at least from me and anybody else who can’t stomach Joe Biden.
Speaking of CounterPunch, their encounter with Russian interference must still sting. On Christmas Day in 2017, editors Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank took up the case of “Alice Donovan,” a Russian troll submitted articles to CounterPunch until the Washington Post outed her. Their reaction to her submissions was about the same I had to PeaceData’s content:
Based solely on what we’d just reviewed was there any reason at the time to suspect that Alice Donovan was anything other than what she appeared to be: an occasional contributor of topical stories? Not as far as we could tell.
As our hunt ended in a cul-de-sac, we began to ask ourselves: Did it really matter that much if we couldn’t prove “Alice Donovan” was actually Alice Donovan? We’d run anonymous writers before. Was this situation really much different?
You might even say that she had about the same impact as PeaceData, very little. If a retiree like me, who spends 12 hours a day on the Internet often sniffing out Red-Brown websites like Off-Guardian or Consortium News, had never heard of PeaceData, what possible damage could it have done? Alexa.com rates it as 244,318 in impact, less than half of louisproyect.org, and 1/6th of CounterPunch. Whatever the Kremlin was spending on this foray into American politics, they should ask for their money back.
PeaceData’s stillborn nature does not mean that Russia lacks impact. The Senate report cites Buzzfeed on the workload of Internet Research Agency employees:
On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts· a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers. and tweet 50 times a day.
Holy crap. Now I know where all those Tweets defending Assad by “CommieBoy,” “SonofDiogenes,” “AnacondaJoe,” et al. originated. When you have 400 employees all getting paid to post links to Theodore Postol and Syrian Girl, someone like me can begin to feel overwhelmed. That’s one of the reasons I don’t have much use for Twitter.
Many analysts are beginning to hone in on social media’s ability not only to amplify support for Assad but more recently for Kyle Rittenhouse. The real danger facing us is not a Twitter or Facebook account belonging to PeaceData’s bogus editors. Their articles faulting Biden for his racism and neoliberalism will not persuade people to vote for Trump and probably not for Howie Hawkins. However, social media is instrumentalizing white supremacist militias in the U.S. They are part of Trump’s arsenal that might come in handy if he decides to mount a coup. If the election doesn’t go his way, especially in the event of another 9/11 type terror attack, he might turn into the fascist about whom we’ve prematurely been worrying.
Although it was a Republican-led Senate Committee that charged Russia with interfering with the 2020 elections, you will see scant mention of this on Fox News and even less on One America News Network (OANN) that is even friendlier to Russia. Mostly, it will be a recurring theme on MSNBC, CNN, the N.Y. Times and Washington Post that were also prime purveyors of the Russiagate narrative after 2016. In the increasingly likely event of a Trump victory, you can expect Rachel Maddow et al to harp on Russian interference once again.
In that eventuality, I see no reason to attribute it to Trump’s appeal but rather to Biden’s lack thereof, just as was the case with Hillary Clinton. The one candidate who could have beaten Trump was Bernie Sanders, but the Democratic Party was more afraid of him than it was Trump’s second term. Most of his ardent supporters will probably go along with his Joe Biden sycophancy, but there will be a large minority that will feel shattered by a 2016 replay, with Sanders once again meekly carrying Biden’s water. What if Sanders had Ralph Nader’s nerve, who ran against both Gore and Bush in 2000? That decision would, of course, split the vote and guaranteed Trump’s victory, but it also would have laid the groundwork for a radical third party that is as badly needed today as we needed a new anti-slavery party in the 1850s. If Sanders had decided to run, I would have even written him a speech in April to win over the people protesting killer cops and the President who backs them today:
My fellow Americans,
I am suspending my campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President since it has become clear that leading party officials have closed ranks against me. The suspension of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s campaigns helped unify the party apparatus around Joe Biden’s campaign and thus make the question of “electability” paramount even if it left voters seeking change in the cold.
Like my fellow Democrats, I believe we must prevent Donald J. Trump’s re-election. More importantly, we need a new party that takes up the challenge to the billionaire class, whether Republican or Democrat. Whatever name we choose for this new party, the democratic socialist values will be its guiding star. Perhaps we should call it the North Star Party in honor of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper. After all, Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Our new party will fight for the restoration of New Deal values and serve as an organizing center for racial equality, a living wage, and immigrant rights in a country that has for too long catered to the super-rich’s greed and arrogance.
We plan to reallocate the $182 million in small donations to my campaign to create new party headquarters across the United States, in both blue and red states. I have begun assembling a senior staff that will be in charge of creating our organizational infrastructure.
While I don’t believe that the Obama White House could ever be mistaken for the Trump administration’s naked criminality, it is clear that its failure to confront the billionaire class left working people less motivated to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. When Goldman-Sachs paid her $675,000 for a speech, it showed how willing the Democratic Party elites were to play ball with Wall Street. It allowed Donald J. Trump to demagogically attack the Democrats as part of the swamp and land us in the current mess.
In cities and states across the country, we need to take on the Republicans. They are using their political power to increase the economic power of the corporations that are defying regulations against fracking, making trade unions impossible to organize, and creating terrible suffering for our immigrant population, both documented and undocumented. We expect our supporters to be both candidates and organizers. To further that end, we will be creating training centers where young people will learn the skills that helped build the CIO and the NAACP in the 1930s and 40s.
While most of our fire will concentrate on Trump, we will also clarify our differences with my old friend Joe Biden, since they are sharp enough to force us to offer an alternative. If the Democrats don’t support a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, our army of volunteers will bring that message to cities and towns all across the U.S.A., red and blue states alike.
Facing an existential crisis unlike any encountered in the USA since the Great Depression, we need a new generation of fighters to be inspired by FDR’s words in 1933:
It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level—I mean the wages of decent living.
Perhaps through our militancy and our deep resolve, the Democratic Party leadership will begin to return to its New Deal roots and lead us into a new epoch. If Joe Biden steals our program just like FDR stole Norman Thomas’s, we’d be happy to step aside. Until that time comes, we will be united and determined to forge a path that leads to a better life for working people.