The Manhattan-based technology firm has been at the forefront of the establishment's attack on alternative media, trying to establish a non-existent link between leftist sites, the Kremlin, and Trump's re-election campaign. In 2020, Nimmo and Francois wrote a report hinting that a Russian government operation had infiltrated many prominent independent news sites, including MintPress, The GrayZone, InTheseTimes and Common Dreams . The gist of the Graphika report was that a microblogging site called "Peace Data" was trying to attract an audience by "partnering" with them and publishing their content. MintPresspublishes under a Creative Commons license, which means anyone is free to post the content it creates, and there are plenty of websites and microblogs that do just that. At the time, no one at MintPress even knew Peace Data existed .
In its report, Graphika described MintPress as "a U.S.-based Middle East website that describes U.S. foreign policy as an 'imperialist agenda that believes America can bomb its way out of any difficult situation. While there may be some truth in this description, it is clear from the context that it is intended to shock the reader.
Graphika founder John Kelly (right) watches as Richard Burr shakes hands with Renee DiReste at a Senate hearing, Aug. 1, 2018. Photo | AP
Without any evidence, Graphika said Peace Data was a Kremlin-controlled operation, noting that the right giveaway was its "anti-Western tone" that "accused Western countries, the EU or NATO of imperialism or interference in other states," its stance against the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen and sympathy for the plight of Palestinians or Kashmiris. The point of this, as The GrayZone's Ben Norton observed, was clear: "If journalists acknowledge the existence of American imperialism, cover Western foreign policy critically or show sympathy for Yemen, Palestine and Kashmir, they are aiding and abetting the Kremlin. ".
The vast majority of Peace Data's content was in Arabic, not English, and only 5 percent of its articles dealt with the 2020 U.S. election at all, strongly suggesting that this was not a Kremlin intervention operation to get Trump elected. Moreover, its coverage was absolutely negligible, as even Graphika was forced to concede. An indication of this is the fact that his English-language Facebook page had only 198 likes at the time of the shutdown. If this was indeed an influence operation, it was incompetent and ineffective and certainly not worthy of such close scrutiny by a cool New York intelligence firm. The man could have attracted a large audience by talking loudly in a busy movie theater.
Attempts to link Peace Data to prominent anti-war sites were also extremely weak. As Miles Kampf-Lassin, web editor of In These Times , noted on Twitter, "This whole Russian troll attempt to 'infiltrate and exploit' In These Times consists of one email sent from a random address to our general submission email, which was never responded to. Just to make it clear to everyone what's really going on here."
Despite the gaping holes in his methodology, the report caused a media storm. The New York Times published a series of long articles interviewing two of the few people who wrote original content for Peace Data . Ironically, if this was indeed a Russian influence operation, both men were Russian hawks affiliated with the right wing of the Democratic Party. One even worked for conservative Democratic Congressman Don Beyer.
Suspicions that this was in fact an American guilt-by-association operation increased after Peace Data published a response in ludicrously bad English, a statement that sounded more like an American impersonating a Russian-speaking Englishman than a real Russian. There were no such glaring grammatical errors on the Peace Data site, let alone in every sentence. Nevertheless, media outlets around the world took the bad English as a sure sign of a Russian influence operation, even though genuine pro-Russian media outlets, such as Sputnik or RT, do not make such mistakes.
A pattern of suppression of dissent?
Graphika's report is very similar to a 2016 investigation by a shadowy group calling itself PropOrNot. After the shock of the 2016 election, PropOrNot said it used sophisticated "Internet analytics tools" that identified more than 200 fake news sites that were "common purveyors of Russian propaganda" - implying that they helped Trump win the election. The list included WikiLeaks and right-wing Trump-supporting websites such as The Drudge Report ; anti-Trump websites that were also critical of Hillary Clinton such as MintPress News , Truthout and The Black Agenda Report ; and libertarian tools such as Antiwar.com and the Ron Paul Institute . In other words, any news source critical of the establishment.
PropOrNot argued that a sure sign that you were reading Russian propaganda was if the source criticized Obama, Clinton, NATO, the "mainstream media" or expressed an unwillingness to go to war with Russia. As PropOrNot explained , "Russian propaganda never assumes that [a conflict with Russia] will simply lead to a Cold War 2 and a possible peaceful defeat of Russia, as last time."
Despite refusing to show any methodology or even reveal who they were, PropOrNot's statements caused a months-long media meltdown and quickly led to organizations like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter radically changing their algorithms to promote 'credible sources' and demote 'borderline sources.' content." The result was immediate. Overnight, alternative media and anti-establishment voices lost their audiences. MintPress lost nearly 90% of its Google search traffic; AlterNet experienced a 63% decline; Democracy Now! 36% and Truthout 25%.
As writer Caitlin Johnston has observed , algorithm-based censorship is far more damaging than regular censorship because it is far less visible. Ultimately, the PropOrNot saga allowed the establishment to increase its control over communications and effectively silence dissenting voices.
It is now almost certain that PropOrNot was not a neutral independent organization, but was created by Michael D. Weiss, a freelance senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. A scan of the PropOrNot Web site showed that it was controlled by The Interpreter, the journal of which Weiss is editor-in-chief. In addition, one researcher found hundreds of examples of PropOrNot and Weiss' Twitter accounts using identical and very unusual turns of phrase, strongly suggesting that they are one and the same. Today, Weiss is a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, along with Melanie Smith, director of analysis at Graphika.
The power of artificial neutrality
Even a cursory glance at Graphika's funding sources, staff expertise and results should be enough to raise alarms about its motives and goals. Graphika is funded by the U.S. National Security Service, is staffed by "former" agents, and produces content that contributes heavily to the National Security Service's agenda. "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck," so they say.
These semi-state actors play a very important role in today's online landscape. In the 1970s, Graphika employees most likely worked for the CIA, preparing internal reports for the U.S. government. The trick of the 21st century is to outsource this work to "private" companies, largely government-funded and staffed by former agents, while presenting their findings as neutral, reliable and fact-based.
If the CIA or NSA controlled social media and deleted hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Iranian, or Russian accounts or suppressed local alternative media, public resistance would be much stronger. Nevertheless, this thin veil of neutrality on the part of "independents" has allowed a situation where foxes have taken over the coop of online communications, promising to keep us safe from ineffective Russian operations, all the while bombarding us with propaganda that helps push us toward the precipice of war.