A sophisticated Russian propaganda effort is behind the "fake news" phenomenon that gave rise to thousands of misleading online articles during the recent elections.
Independent researchers who tracked these fake news and the propaganda effort that created and circulated them now say that the goal was to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, aid President-elect Donald Trump, and undermine citizens' faith in U.S. democracy, the Washington Post reports.
Two groups of independent researchers came to the conclusion that the Russians utilized American-made technology platforms to sow distrust in democracy, promote Trump, and punish Clinton during a vulnerable moment in the recent campaigns. While it is unclear if the Russians' fake news effort played a major role in Trump's election, the researchers say that some of the most-circulated stories from the propaganda effort were those on unsubstantiated claims about Clinton's health, allegations of voter fraud, and alleged hacked emails.
"They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests," Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said. Watts, along with two other researchers, have been tracking Russian propaganda since 2014. "This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media."
"A small army of social media operatives - a mix of Russian-controlled accounts, useful idiots, and innocent bystanders - are deployed to promote all of this material to unknowing audiences," an article in War On The Rocks, a national security online magazine, reads. According to the article, which was penned by Watts and his co-authors Andrew Weisburd and J.M. Berger, some of the fake news were written by real people while others were the product of bots. Some of the news were purported to have come from innocent news aggregators while others were presented as breaking news.
The Post says that PropOrNot, a nonpartisan team of researchers with foreign policy, military, and technology backgrounds, was able to identify over 200 websites that published Russian propaganda on a regular basis. These reached around 15 million Americans. The group also determined that fake news posted on Facebook were viewed at least 213 million times.
On Friday, Nov. 25, RT, one of the Russian-funded information services identified in the reports, came out with an article saying that the Post was "blasted online" for its "latest hit-piece." The outlet also tried to discredit Watts, saying that the Foreign Policy Research Institute was founded to mobilize long-term strategies against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.