Recent claims that the digital media outlet PeaceData is either controlled by or influenced by Russia should not come as a shock to audiences in the U.S. or abroad. Leading up to a Presidential election, Russia, as well as other adversaries, have and will continue to ramp up efforts to sow further division among the American electorate. The ultimate goal is not to support one candidate or party over another, but rather to cause such friction within the U.S. that election results are contested, cause members of the public to gather in protest, create an environment where Congress and the White House are unable to work together to pass legislation, and to develop a general sense that democracy does not work. From the Russian perspective, protests in American streets distract from what Putin is doing both domestically and internationally, while highlighting that a messy democratic system is not the most effective form of government.
For generations, governments around the world have used media outlets to sway audiences that they have an interest in influencing. The manipulation ranges from a single journalist writing stories that fit a particular narrative or editorial slant, to wholesale ownership of a newspaper, radio station, television station or media conglomerate. The media outlets could be government-owned and focused on influencing a domestic audience or foreign-owned and targeted at an element of society, such as the Russian Communist-funded Workers’ Advocate, which focused on labor unions from the 1970s to early 1990s. U.S. Government-funded Voice of America and Radio Liberty radio stations are common examples of outlets that were very active during the Cold War and remain in operation to spread democratic ideals. In large part, whether the average media consumer realizes it or not, many outlets, State-owned or otherwise, aim to spread a particular point of view and there are very few neutral sources left in the world.
Digital media, including social media, has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for new publications and voices to be heard. Establishing a digital news outlet no longer requires the expense of printing and the hiring of a large staff to facilitate publishing and delivery. For $12, a web domain can be purchased. In a handful of hours, potential writers around the world can be contacted via social media. Free website builders allow for a domain to become a functioning website in a day or less. Russia, and others, are taking advantage of this low barrier to entry to crate outlets like PeaceData and countless others.
For most journalists and commentators, a cursory look at the PeaceData website (www.peacedata.net; now shut-down) should have raised some red flags. Virtually all content was anti-U.S. Government in nature, using current events to highlight why the current administration, structure of government offices, and American lifestyle were inherently bad or unsuitable. Articles were all heavily editorialized and supportive of progressive political positions, but other viewpoints were absent from the site.
Also of concern is the lack of information about the owner and company leadership. The lack of transparency about who runs the outlet, where their funding comes from, who their staff writers are, and what their overall mission is constitutes a strong indicator of a nefarious backer. Countries like Russia do not wish their involvement in the outlet to be easily identified, thus such details are generally omitted from the website, marketing materials, or business information databases. Additionally, a writer interviewed for Reuters (here) and one who wrote for The Guardian (here) noted that outreach to potential journalists were made through social media (namely Twitter), rather than through shared contacts on LinkedIn or via an introduction from a friend or colleague. Non-traditional writers were contacted, such as those who did not previously write on political matters. All of these are red flags.
Viewing PeaceData through an influence campaign lens, the steady drumbeat of negative aspects of American politics and society will, over time, influence the outlet’s readers. The focus on far-left, progressive viewpoints is designed to activate that small percentage of the American electorate whose views are often in conflict with the majority of moderates in the U.S. The current website, which notes that it has ceased operation, takes a final stab at companies and personalities it views as behind PeaceData’s demise, and the root of all problems in the U.S., the 1% and big media. The outlet’s message is clear, democracy is ineffective, wealth and power must be redistributed, and Russia (and its proxies) are misunderstood.
No doubt another website is at the ready to backfill PeaceData’s place and a third website is under creation for when that backfill is burned, and on and on. The key for American writers, readers, and media outlets is to understand the purpose of these types of outlets and to be savvy to who they are writing for and what they are reading. Looking for the red flags can prevent any of us from falling victim to Russia or other adversaries’ influence campaigns.