Did Russian trolls infect the left? And how much did it matter?

Did Russians plant fake news in lefty media? Maybe — but that's no excuse for a crackdown on unpopular opinion

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 10, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

 (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
(Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

Back in late 2016, I remember joking to friends that I was disappointed Salon hadn’t wound up on the list of purported pro-Russian propaganda outlets published by a shadowy online outfit called PropOrNot, subject of an overly credulous (and later redacted) story in the Washington Post. Whoever or whatever PropOrNot may be — and there are some intriguing theories! — it seemed to be trying to blacklist media outlets on both the left and right that took positions too far outside the foreign-policy mainstream, or that questioned the dogmas of “American exceptionalism.” What had we done wrong?

Those were innocent times, before we realized we were all living inside an idiotic and increasingly unconvincing simulated reality, whose source code keeps glitching out. My joke isn’t funny anymore, but only partly because it now appears that agents or surrogates of the Russian government did indeed carry out wide-ranging propaganda attacks during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, using an array of bots, trolls and fake online personas. It’s by no means clear that the reported hack of Democratic National Committee emails was the most important part of that campaign, or the most effective.

In fact, a mini-wave of panic rippled through progressive media a few weeks ago, after another Washington Post story (published on Christmas Day) reported that a freelance writer who went by “Alice Donovan,” and had published articles on the left-leaning nonpartisan site CounterPunch and various other outlets, was believed by the FBI to be “a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.” If that prose was overripe with unearned paranoia, the sense of alarm was real. After conducting their own extensive inquiry, CounterPunch editors — whose site has a long record of independence and integrity — were unable to come up with any evidence that Alice Donovan was a real person. (The story gets even weirder after that; stay tuned.)

I spent part of my first workday after the Christmas break combing through Salon’s archives and asking myself a previously unthinkable question: Had we been had too? Had we become Vladimir Putin’s tools without knowing it (one of the scenarios envisioned by the PropOrNot blacklisters), much as the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s novel “The Names” fails to realize until the end of the story that he’s working for the CIA?

It’s tempting to argue that in a big-picture, ass-backwards fashion, nearly the entire Western media has become Putin’s troll army. We think about him way too much, exaggerate his ambitions and his influence, ascribe a supervillain-level genius to him that he certainly does not possess. For many people seeking to explain what has gone wrong in America, Putin is like T.S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat: responsible for all evil deeds; everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But to return to the concrete example in front of us, I’m highly confident that Salon has never published anything by a false-flag freelancer, and highly dubious of the proposition that the left-progressive media in general is infested with Kremlin stooges.

Several readers wrote to us in the wake of that Post article to offer home-cooked evidence that one or another Salon writer who had raised unconventional arguments about the Russia scandal or the Syrian crisis (among other things) was a Donovan-style troll persona or, if that didn’t fly, harbored a sinister secret agenda. Since I know the writers in question to be human beings with Social Security numbers and track records in journalism, I wasn’t worried about that.

What worries me is that our media climate has become so poisonous that it’s no longer sufficient to disagree with contrary opinions, or to argue against them as forcefully as you like. Now we must contend that those opinions are illegitimate, or that those who express them do not exist. PropOrNot appears to have sunk back into the think-tank ooze whence it came; nothing new has been posted on its site since last March. But its goal of narrowing the range of permissible public opinion -- and declaring certain opinions out of bounds -- has to a large degree been accomplished: Either you believe that Vladimir Putin has his greasy fingers in every pie and presents an existential threat to Western democracy, or you're a Fox News Trumper howling along with Sean Hannity.

One of many strange elements to the Alice Donovan story is that the articles published under her byline were not overtly ideological in any notable way: None directly concerned the 2016 election and to my knowledge none even mentioned Putin. One of Donovan's stories discussed the WikiLeaks release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but not in an inflammatory or counterfactual fashion, especially compared to what plenty of non-fake journalists wrote at the time. As CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair told the Post, the Donovan stories didn’t stick out at all amid the flow of thousands of original or repurposed articles published by his site.

In the long and fascinating exploration of the Donovan affair written by St. Clair and CounterPunch managing editor Joshua Frank — an exemplary work of journalistic self-criticism that is well worth your time — they offer at least a limited defense of their original decisions to publish Donovan’s submissions (which arrived unsolicited, from a generic email address). Her stories about Syria, published when President Trump and his foreign policy team began to strike a more aggressive posture in that conflict, were “timely and interesting,” they write, and they “were glad to add a young, female voice to our mix of contributors.”

As St. Clair and Frank later discovered, however, several of the Donovan stories were apparently plagiarized (with remarkable alacrity) from another source: a purported Syrian journalist named Sophie Mangal, who also appears not to exist. The rabbit hole gets especially deep and dark after that, but I think it’s fair to summarize the CounterPunch findings this way: “Mangal” gives every indication of being an instrument of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but she and “Donovan” do not appear to be identical. Sophie Mangal had submitted clumsily written pro-Assad articles to CounterPunch on numerous occasions, but none were ever published. Donovan deployed vaguely similar propaganda (if that’s what it was) in much subtler and less obvious fashion.

None of that contradicts the FBI thesis that Alice Donovan was a Russian troll, to be sure. But if the content of Donovan’s stories was supposed to be the point, they didn’t accomplish much: None of them was widely read or went viral on social media. On the other hand, if Alice Donovan had been specifically created to discredit the independent left media, and to undermine the credibility of commentators who depart from the orthodox creed of America-centric policy positions sometimes called the “Washington consensus,” the whole thing could hardly have been managed more effectively.

I’m not Devin Nunes; I’m not suggesting this was all a Deep State double-reverse, or that all the evidence of Russian hacking, leaking and social media fakery around the 2016 campaign was concocted by the CIA to cover its Campaign of Total Evil. A far more parsimonious explanation is that Alice Donovan, whoever or whatever created her, was a teeny-tiny agent of chaos who yielded unexpected benefits.

It’s a familiar refrain at this point, but our so-called democracy and the media ecology around it had become so fragmented and vulnerable by 2016 — our shared understanding of reality had become so compromised, in other words — that they made easy targets for Vladimir Putin’s supposed troll army, or any other interested parties with bad intentions. That process of decay began long before Donald Trump came down the golden escalator to announce his candidacy, and before whatever amateur-hour interactions his campaign had with Russian agents or intermediaries.

I think it’s necessary to hold competing ideas in mind at this historical moment, and perhaps to observe that PropOrNot and “Alice Donovan” may be on opposing teams but are playing the same game on the same field, by rules most of us can’t quite perceive. There is legitimate reason for concern about Russian efforts to muddy the American political waters and sow discord, given what we now believe we know about the Russia-linked Facebook accounts that apparently argued every possible position on every possible issue. We will never know for sure whether Russian interference got Trump elected, amid the dozens of other marginal factors involved, but given the flukish character of that election, it’s not out of the question.

Is there fake news and loony-tunes conspiracy theory to be found on the left as well as the right? Indisputably. I read one article that started with reasonable inferences about the proprietorship of PropOrNot and then went straight to Seth Rich trutherism and the Deep State campaign against Trump. Are some people on the hard left overly willing to make relativistic excuses for the semi-totalitarian Putin regime, in roughly the same way their forebears avoided talking about the fully totalitarian Soviet regime, because it provides a hypothetical check to unlimited American power? That too.

But as St. Clair and Frank observe, it would take an awful lot of Alice Donovans and Sophie Mangals — who look like poorly executed, low-grade examples of spook-craft, at best — to make up for the lengthy U.S. record of lies, misinformation and media manipulation, both at home and abroad. From the 1950s through at least the ’70s, numerous reporters at mainstream American newspapers, magazines and TV networks served as CIA assets, and some were recruited as operatives. Carl Bernstein reported in 1977 that the New York Times had “provided cover for about 10 CIA operatives” in previous decades, and CIA director William Colby admitted in 1973 that the agency had “some three dozen” reporters on the payroll at that time.

Of course, if you endorse the view that the well-dressed, martini-drinking men who did the CIA’s bidding at the Times and the Post and CBS News while pretending to be journalists were true-blue patriots serving the cause of freedom — while whoever wrote Alice Donovan’s little-noticed articles was serving a foreign despot who hates democracy — then the whole narrative looks pretty clear. But almost nobody in 21st-century America feels entirely comfortable with that history or is willing to engage with it honestly, which is why we always act surprised when it comes back to bite us.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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