The flood of "fake news" this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.Russia's increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery -- including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human "trolls," and networks of websites and social-media accounts -- echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.
The scourge of "fake news" has been well documented in recent weeks, with some evidence that made-up stories easily outperformed real news reports on Facebook in the final months of the presidential campaign.And while the fictional reports had many authors, the Washington Post reported over the holiday weekend that Russia's government played an important role.
The Post's report was based on the findings of "two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment."One of the reports came from PropOrNot, a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military, and technology backgrounds, whose executive director told the Post, "The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy. It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump's campaign.... It worked." [Update: see below.]What's especially striking about reports like these is the picture that emerges when we add the details to the picture that already exists. Consider:* The FBI and other American agencies concluded that Russian hackers did, in fact, steal Democratic materials in the hopes of helping Trump win the U.S. presidential election.* The FBI also launched "a preliminary inquiry into Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort's foreign business connections," including connections in Russia and Putin's allies in Ukraine.* Shortly after Election Day, Russian officials said they were in contact with leading members of Trump's team during the presidential campaign, despite the Republican campaign's claims to the contrary.* McClatchy reported over the weekend that since Election Day, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin "have spoken at least twice by phone," and that doesn't count the additional contacts between the two men's aides. The report added, "That's more contact than Trump is known to have had with any other world leader since he defeated Clinton in the Nov. 8 election."Remember, each of these stories are just from the last month or so.Eric Chenoweth, the co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, wrote in the Washington Post over the holiday weekend, "In assessing Donald Trump's presidential victory, Americans continue to look away from this election's most alarming story: the successful effort by a hostile foreign power to manipulate public opinion before the vote."* Update: The PropOrNot report is available in its entirety here. Note that The Intercept has published its own piece questioning PropOrNot's accuracy.