Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential race a small and obscure website popped up claiming to be an authority on Russian propaganda. Ironically, their aim was to disseminate, analyze, flag any news stories or publications it thought was Russian propaganda, and compile an official list of propaganda websites. Initially, when PropOrNot first came online nobody paid much attention to it, this was until a reporter from the Washington Post picked up on the story.
Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say | Washington Post - 11/24/2016
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.
The article was littered with assumptions and speculations from unverified sources at PropOrNot. In the WaPo article the author states that the executive director of PropOrNot spoke to the WaPo on the condition of anonymity to "avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers". This was the first red flag at the time. If an organization like this wants to be taken seriously then they need to have some public figures on the face of it. Yet this did little to stop the WAPo from posting this article. The Intercept even called them out for it at the time.
So, who's behind this poor attempt at shaping the narrative. Over the last week 2 independent researchers have both published their findings online. These 2 bits of research were both attempting to identify the clandestine group behind Prop or Not. The first bit of research was done using data forensics to identify the owners, and the second used linguistic analysis. Both pieces of research independently came to the conclusion that the main man behind Prop or Not is Atlantic Councils, Michael Weiss.
Michael Weiss is an author, the senior editor for The Daily Beast, a columnist for Foreign Policy, and a frequent national security contributor for CNN. He’s also editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-chair of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society.
The Interpreter website, once funded by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is a crucial link in this puzzle. One of the researchers used a pen testing tool called Iron Wasp that allows you to passively scan websites for vulnerabilities. The scan of PropOrNot website showed that the admin dashboard belonged to www.interpretermag.com. (I have not independently verified this scan yet)
As we can see from the headers on the Interpretermag.com the website is funded by the Atlantic Council.
He we confirm Michael Weiss is a fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Assuming that the passive scan of PropOrNot.com turns out to be correct then with the other evidence that links him to the Atlantic Council I believe it's enough to prove Michael Weiss was very likely behind this failed propaganda project. The evidence doesn't stop here though. Another online researcher analyzed and compared the linguistics of the tweets from both Michael Weiss and PropOrNot Twitter accounts.
Now, for the Mindhunter-inspired moment you’ve all been waiting for: the forensic linguistic analysis. Drumroll aside, it’s simple. Both PropOrNot and Michael Weiss have a strange, idiosyncratic go-to retort when they’re responding to an argument they don’t like: “cute.” OK, you might say, lots of people say “cute.” But look at your own Twitter feed. Look at other people’s. Does anyone say “cute” as much as Michael Weiss and PropOrNot? This, by the way, is only a fraction of the tweets (I literally only stopped because I got tired of cutting-and-pasting; there are hundreds more examples). Search yourself!
The irony of this project is astounding. For over a year this group has been attempting to spread anti-Russian propaganda, not in a bit to fight Russian propaganda, but to try and remove Trump from power. Hopefully with these new pieces of research they may think twice about pulling the same trick again on the American public. You can find the full breakdown and analysis of both pieces of research (including the tweet links), here and here.