Who’s behind PropOrNot? I have a theory (with forensic linguistics!)

NOTE – if you only want to see the “forensic linguistics” part, skip to the end! It’s the best part!

CAVEATS AND DISCLAIMERS. This is not an accusation, “doxxing” or “outing” of any of the people to whom the circumstances, coincidences and parallels in this post relate. They may well be, in fact, mere coincidences. Michael Weiss and the staff of The Interpreter are all public figures who are already openly engaged in “the fight against Russian propaganda.” I don’t purport to have any firsthand knowledge and I’m not privy to any documentary evidence that would tie any of them to the PropOrNot project.

That said…

My theory

My theory is that PropOrNot is the brainchild of Michael Weiss, assisted by the tight-knit staff of The Interpreter, the (currently) Atlantic Council-funded online magazine of which Weiss is editor-in-chief. The staff of The Intepreter appear to also moonlight for Polygraph.info, a Verrit-esque project of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (US government funded media) that fact-checks Russian media.

According to this theory, the PropOrNot Twitter account is manned by Weiss himself much of the time (as evidenced by the results of my forensic linguistic analysis given at the end of this post), but also by members of The Interpreter staff. Considering Weiss’s workload and schedule, the website would have to be maintained by The Interpreter staff.

Michael Weiss

Weiss cuts quite an impressive, if controversial, figure, and wears many hats for a guy in his mid-30s (I don’t have a birthdate for him, but he graduated from college in 2002, which would make his year of birth 1980 or thereabouts, and his age about 37). He is a senior editor for The Daily Beast, a columnist for Foreign Policy, an author and a frequent national security analyst and contributor for CNN. He’s also editor-in-chief of  The Interpreter Magazine (a website), a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-chair of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society. Weiss co-wrote the 2015 book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and has many other writing credits going back to his university days.

The Interpreter

The Interpreter is an anti-Russian disinformation project which appears to have been inspired by, ironically, InoSMI.ru, a website run by Rossiya Segodnya, the Russian state media giant headed by the US- and EU-sanctioned firebrand Dmitry Kiselyov. Both The Interpreter and InoSMI (ИноСМИ, a Russian acronym meaning “foreign media”) provide translations (The Interpreter into English, InoSMI into Russian) of foreign media articles, with the goal of exposing lies and distortions in the media of the “enemy camp.”

From January 1, 2016 through February 2017, The Interpreter was an in-house “special project”of US government broadcaster RFE/RL. (It was founded as a project sponsored by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s son Pavel’s Institute of Modern Russia, as well as something called the Herzen Foundation.) According to Weiss, via HuffPo, RFE/RL decided to drop funding for The Interpreter in autumn 2016 (a significant circumstance–more on that below), but the staff would continue to work on Polygraph.info (apparently the same staff handles both) with US government funding.

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My methodology

The circumstantial evidence in this post fall sunder three categories: (1) parallels between the (scant, it must be said) reported/public facts about PropOrNot, on the one hand, to the much more voluminous public information known about Weiss and the staff of The Intepreter, on the other hand; (2) taking as an assumption that Weiss and The Interpreter are behind PropOrNot, comparing the known circumstances in the other direction, and (3) a forensic linguistic analysis of the Twitter feeds of Michael Weiss and PropOrNot, which has identified an idiosyncratic linguistic “tell” that supports the theory that Michael Weiss tweets regularly from the PropOrNot account.

(1) Comparing the firsthand reporting on PropOrNot with Weiss and The Interpreter

As far as I can tell, there have been only two media reports based on firsthand interactions with the PropOrNot “spokesperson” or “executive director” (both of whom are Weiss, according to my theory): Craig Timberg’s November 24, 2016 Washington Post article headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” and Adrian Chen’s December 1, 2016 New Yorker article headlined “The propaganda about Russian propaganda.” Other than Timberg and Chen, as far as I can tell no reporting on PropOrNot is based on actual discussions with anyone from PropOrNot.

According to my theory, Timberg knows who the PropOrNot “spokesman” is and Adrian Chen does not. I’ll tell you why. I’m not a journalist, but I drink with journalists from time to time, and I don’t think that Timberg’s editors would let him run an article referring to PropOrNot as a collective of “experts” without establishing that the source has some bona fides in combatting propaganda; Weiss, incidentally, as the editor-in-chief of a US government grant recipient for combatting propaganda, would have such bona fides in spades. Also, Timberg referred to the PropOrNot “executive director” speaking “on condition of anonymity,” which in journalese means that WaPo knows who he is but he’s been granted anonymity.

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I’ll make it absolutely clear for those who stick to the theory that the frontman of PropOrNot is a nobody: I don’t think Timberg could’ve sold his editors on his PropOrNot story without the “hook” of the frontman being someone with a media resume – otherwise it’s just a bunch of anonymous cranks who put together a blacklist of media outlets they don’t like. That’s not newsworthy.

Chen, on the other hand, was reporting on PropOrNot after the WaPo article, and the critical response to the article (including a Nov. 28, 2016 Matt Taibbi screed in Rolling Stone headlined “The ‘Washington Post’ ‘Blacklist’ Story Is Shameful and Disgusting“), and both the article itself and the response to it had made it newsworthy independent of the identity of PropOrNot’s principals. It’s the same editorial calculation as with the Steele Dossier: before James Comey briefed Donald Trump on the dossier, it was just an unsourced collection of innuendo, so no one besides Michael Isikoff would publish it. Once it became separately newsworthy, the source of the information wasn’t as important as the fact that the FBI director felt the need to describe its contents to the president-elect, so then everyone started reporting on it.

Timberg’s article on insidious Russian propaganda was double-sourced to Clint Watts, J.M. Berger and Andrew Weisbrud, which would later found “Securing Democracy” and the Hamilton 68 dashboard.

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The problem with trying to get the PropOrNot identifying information from Timberg’s article in WaPo is that the article was extensively edited after its original publication, and the version accessible online today is not what people saw when they accessed it in November 2016. A number of the quotes in Matt Taibbi’s article are no longer there (example below).

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That quote isn’t in the WaPo article available online today. And, as Matt Taibbi put it, Timberg’s reporting was very lazy (important for our circumstantial evidence in section (2) below).

The “Clark Kent” argument. Probably the most suspicious part of the Timberg article from the point of view of Weiss’s potential involvement in it as an anonymous source from PropOrNot is that Weiss isn’t mentioned in the Timberg articleAnyone reading this post who was aware of American anti-disinfo efforts knows that Michael Weiss was one of the best-known names in the business. He had been a recipient of NGO and US government grants for years, since at least 2013, for the exact purpose of combatting Russian propaganda. He was the head of two anti-disinformation media organizations. He had authored, together with Peter Pomerantsev, a seminal article in 2014 (long before the 2016 election season, long before the general public would’ve been aware of the threat of “Russian disinformation”), and proposed in that article to rank and blacklist media that disseminate disinformation, the exact topic of Timberg’s article. Timberg’s research for the article, assuming he did any, would’ve led him directly to Weiss. It’s particularly surprising in light of the fact that Timberg’s article linked to an article on the topic from The Daily Beast, where Weiss is Senior Editor. Wouldn’t Timberg have contacted the author of the article in The Daily Beast? Wouldn’t that reporter have said, “by the way, our Senior Editor is one of America’s foremost authorities on this topic and runs 2 anti-disinfo websites funded by the US government – you really should talk to him”? It’s implausible that Timberg wouldn’t have come across Weiss’s name in the process of writing his article – but if Weiss were acting as an anonymous source for the subject of the article, Timberg’s editors wouldn’t have let Timberg print a comment from Weiss on, in effect, himselfThis is the journalistic equivalent of Clark Kent and Superman never being seen in the same room together–Weiss’s absence from the Timberg article is circumstantial evidence that Weiss was an unnamed source on PropOrNot. This is because, particularly at that time, any well-researched article on the subject of “naming and shaming” news outlets for spreading disinformation should’ve mentioned Weiss if not relied upon him as a source.

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So the scant “reported facts” on PropOrNot come from Adrian Chen’s article, for which PropOrNot’s “spokesman” was speaking anonymously.

a) PropOrNot’s “spokesman” is an American man in his 30s or 40s, well versed in Internet culture and prone to swearing. Michael Weiss is an American, age approximately 37. He has been involved in several Internet projects, including but not limited to The Interpreter and Polygraph.info.

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As for swearing, Weiss swears prolifically on Twitter, so you can only imagine what he’s like in person or on the phone. This is only a small sampling–Weiss swears liberally in his Twitter feed.

b) The PropOrNot team numbers about 40 people. I give the “spokesman” the benefit of the doubt that 40 people were involved in the work that went into PropOrNot, but I don’t think there are 40 people who actually realize that they are part of PropOrNot. Remember that this would be Weiss speaking anonymously. The claim isn’t made in the Timberg article, where it would’ve had to have been checked. So I don’t think it’s a complete fabrication, but I don’t think that PropOrNot has, or ever had, 40 active, aware members. I think there are probably four people who’ve ever been consciously involved on the PropOrNot project and have the PropOrNot Twitter account login credentials: Weiss and the three-person staff of The Interpreter. I think that, under the aegis of Weiss’s propaganda-fighting projects, he had “cover” to solicit links and recommendations about “Russian messaging” in media and he considers the people who sent him those links and information to be members of the PropOrNot project–which, in a way, they are, so it’s not a lie, just a misdirection.

Any of Weiss’s many contacts in journalistic, national security, intelligence, diplomatic and tech circles who knew Weiss’s background would not have thought it strange that Weiss would be asking them to keep their eyes open for “Kremlin influence.” Weiss’s resume in this field is distinguished. Not content to simply translate Russian disinformation in The Interpreter, Weiss and Russo-British author/journalist Peter Pomerantzev penned an article (published as a special report in The Interpreter prior to its RFE/RL affiliation) calling for an “internationally recognized ratings system for disinformation.”

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In another stunning coincidence, Weiss’s and Pomerantzev’s paper has been credited with inspiring PropOrNot. In an August 15, 2017 Alternet article by Max Blumenthal headlined “CNN Analyst Michael Weiss Hosted Anti-Muslim Rally with Far-Right Hate Queen Pamela Geller,” Blumenthal credits the two anti-Russian disinformation activists with leading directly to PropOrNot:

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c) The Timberg WaPo article cites The Daily Beast as one of its sole external sources. This is odd. As mentioned, Weiss is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. As Matt Taibbi noted, Craig Timberg’s reporting in his PropOrNot story was exceedingly lazy, and we can make the assumption that his source served the story up to him on a silver platter. According to my theory, the link to The Daily Beast was provided by Weiss.

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d) PropOrNot’s principal is media-savvy.  Chen notes in his article that he received PropOrNot’s pitch before WaPo published Timberg’s story. Chen asked for follow-up, but his PropOrNot interlocutor asked for contacts at other publications. This was an unsubtle hint that Chen would be scooped if he didn’t act fast. Chen’s description of the exchange shows that Chen was convinced that PropOrNot was more media-connected than would seem.

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Weiss is nothing if not media-savvy. Being a reporter himself, with connections and sources in government, think tanks, the military, the intelligence community (list goes on), he knows how to package and pitch a story.

(2) Comparing Weiss and The Interpreter to what we know about PropOrNot

a) PropOrNot and Weiss have a lot of common influences and interests. In early November 2016 (before PropOrNot was reported on by Timberg in WaPo, that is to say, when PropOrNot was tweeting into oblivion with few followers), PropOrNot tweeted a link to a Peter Pomerantsev article. Peter Pomerantsev, as mentioned above, is a collaborator of Michael Weiss.

Also, PropOrNot’s website used to have a page called “Related Projects.” This page is gone now, but according to contemporary reporting it used to include both The Interpreter and Polygraph.info. Both of these projects were highly obscure at the time when PropOrNot became a media sensation (they’re still pretty damn obscure now). Not until the February 2017 HuffPo article referenced above did Weiss acknowledge that The Interpreter and Polygraph.info both belonged to him and were staffed by the same people.

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According to my theory, there’s a reason why the PropOrNot website no longer includes a “related projects” page. The publications named in PropOrNot’s list of Western publications carrying water for the Kremlin threatened to sue and there’s a $10,000 bounty for identifying the perpetrators of PropOrNot.

Here’s another one: both Weiss and PropOrNot frequently reference “horseshoe theory,” which is the idea that the far-right and the far-left of the political spectrum (think Communists on the far left and Fascists on the far right) are closer to each other than they are to the political center.

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Now, “horseshoe theory” isn’t exactly obscure, but I’m a pretty well-educated and well-read person and I had to look it up when I noticed that both Weiss and PropOrNot mention it frequently. Ask yourself: is it just coincidence that both Michael Weiss and PropOrNot talk about “horseshoe theory” this damn much? As with the “cute” comparison at the bottom of this post, this is only a  sampling of how frequently these two tweet about the “horseshoe.”

 

b) The dates of PropOrNot‘s establishment coincide with the dates when RFE/RL, which as a US government-funded organization couldn’t be seen to slander US media, dropped The Interpreter after less than a year. As mentioned above, RFE/RL started funding The Interpreter in January 2016 and decided to drop the funding in autumn 2016. This is a remarkably short period for a US government grant.

Something happened. It’s not normal for a project to be awarded a partnership with US government media in January, to much public fanfare, and have the funding pulled within less than a year.

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Coincidentally (?), according to propornot.com’s whois information, the site was created in August 2016. PropOrNot’s Twitter feed went live in August 2016. The Timberg WaPo article was published in November 2016. This all coincides with the autumn 2016 time period in which Weiss said RFE/RL pulled The Interpreter’s funding.

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So according to my theory, Weiss pitched PropOrNot to BBG (or RFE/RL or VOA, its properties), and BBG said no. As it should have, since BBG is a US taxpayer-funded organization that shouldn’t be funding a blacklist of 200 Western media outlets. There are possible First Amendment implications there, not to mention the potential bad publicity. Alternately, Weiss and his staff began working on PropOrNot as a side project (on a “volunteer” basis), and RFE/RL considered it too risky for RFE/RL employees to be involved in even as a hobby.

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The theory that The Interpreter staff were involved in projects that RFE/RL objected to their employees being part of, but were OK with working with The Interpreter staff on a contract basis, is supported by an odd aside in the HuffPo piece about RFE/RL firing Weiss’s team from Weiss’s second project, Polygraph.info, but at the same time offering to let them work for Polygraph.info on a freelance basis.

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Now, read that sentence above and reflect on how odd the situation is: In January 2016, RFE/RL starts a partnership with Weiss to fund two projects–The Interpreter and Polygraph.info. In autumn 2016 (Weiss specifies that it was before the presidential election, so before Nov. 8), RFE/RL terminates its relationship with The Interpreter, fires Weiss’s staff from Polygraph.info, but invites them back to work as freelancers. This looks like a very specific redefinition of Weiss’s relationship with the US government broadcasting giant based on some event that happened during that period. According to my theory, that event was this: in August-September 2016, Weiss and his team created PropOrNot, started collecting the information that would lead to the infamous PropOrNot “blacklist,” and made plans to roll out a media engagement strategy.

At any rate, after RFE/RL dropped support, Weiss secured funding from the neocon-friendly Atlantic Council.

c) Some of the people manning the PropOrNot Twitter account have a distinct “grant recipient” mindset. Part of what sent me down the road of looking into PropOrNot was an exchange I had with them on Twitter last month.

Mocking PropOrNot, I pointed out that aside from trolling, the only positive media exposure they’d had was Craig Timberg’s WaPo article. I was expecting PropOrNot to tell me to fuck off or something like that.

To my great surprise, PropOrNot responded with a citation in a report by DFRLab. To me this betrayed a certain “NGO mentality” or “grant recipient mentality”–a project tasked with media engagement, like PropOrNot, needs to show KPIs in terms of media engagement. So PropOrNot came back with this:

However (and I only realized this in the process of writing this post), DFRLab is, like The Interpreter, an Atlantic Council-sponsored project. In other words, the “NGO mentality” went even deeper: sister projects funded by the same neocon think tank, in which Michael Weiss is a senior fellow, appear to have been cross-promoting each other.

(3) Forensic linguistics

Now, for the Manhunt: Unabomber-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!

 

 

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