Russia's Internet Research Agency created a far-left, anti-U.S. news site but it couldn't compete with the real thing

The site was called Peace Data and it has been removed from both Facebook after the company got a tip about it from the FBI. The editors of the site didn’t exist and were in fact creations of Russia’s Internet Research Agency. Analysts at Graphika published a detailed investigation of the site showing how they determined that even the photos of the site’s editors were something similar to deep fakes. But while the editors of the site were just creations of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the material it published was written by real people who didn’t realize they’d been hired for a Russian influence operation. The story selection at Peace Data had a particular far-left, anti-capitalist bent:

The operation focused on specific issues in a short list of countries, most notably the United States. Here, the website’s portrayal was wholly negative: it presented the U.S. as war-mongering and law-breaking abroad while being wracked by racism, COVID-19, and cutthroat capitalism at home.

The site paid particular attention to racial and political tensions. This included substantial coverage of the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and criticism of both President Donald Trump and his challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris…

PeaceData’s articles, whether commissioned from independent writers or copied from other outlets, took a strongly progressive, left-wing, or even revolutionary approach to politics. For example, they opposed Big Oil, attacked Fox News (“the propaganda arm of the GOP”) and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos (“Congress is scared. All businesses are scared. And you should be scared too”), condemned corporate industries (“a menace to the environment”),
attacked the QAnon conspiracy and the Boogaloo movement, and wrote on systemic racism in the United States. A few articles attacked both Biden and Trump at once.

The attacks on President Trump sound, frankly, indistinguishable from material published at a lot of left wing sites.

Articles that PeaceData appears to have commissioned from genuine English-speaking writers portrayed Trump as unreliable, meddling in the International Criminal Court, rigging the 2020 election, and “unstable and unhinged.”

But the site also published articles attacking Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In keeping with the far-left editorial approach, they were accused of submitting themselves “to right-wing populism.” They were also accused of racism in at least one piece.

The good news according to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Policy, is that the site was an abject failure. It’s far left material did not go viral and did not attract much attention:

“It confirms what I think we’ve all thought: Russian actors are trying to target the 2020 elections and public debate in the U.S., and they’re trying to be creative about it,” Gleicher said.

“But the second thing that it confirms is, it’s not really working,” he said. “You can run a loud, noisy influence campaign like the one we saw in 2016, and you get caught very quickly. Or you can try to run a much more subtle campaign, which is what this looks like. And A, you still get caught, and B, when you run a subtle influence campaign, you’re sort of working at cross-purposes with yourself. You don’t get a lot of attention for it.”

This could be put down to the general failure of foreign influence operations. Last month I wrote about another online influence attempt, this one by China, which could best be described as pathetic. The site published badly translated idioms as memes such as “Cast a chestnut in the fire will burn themselves with fire.” What does that mean? Who really knows. The site didn’t influence anyone.

But I think there’s another reason the material at Peace Data didn’t go viral. Most of it wasn’t written by freelancers, it was stolen from other left wing sites.

All these articles appear to have been chosen from a roster of sites whose content would appeal either to a progressive audience or to an anti-Western one: this appears to have been an attempt to give the website an authentic feel and political stance before it began searching for freelance writers.

The most quoted website during this initial period was Mint Press News, a U.S.-based site with a focus on the Middle East that has described U.S. foreign policy as “an imperialist agenda that believes it’s possible for America to bomb its way out of every difficult situation.” In all, PeaceData copied 32 articles from this source. In second place, with 28 shares, was the World Socialist Website (wsws.org). The third most popular was CommonDreams.org, billed as “breaking news & views for the progressive community,”…

The problem with Peace Data wasn’t that it was too extreme to attract an audience. The problem was that it was simply repeating what better established far-left sites were already saying.

Vladimir Putin may desperately want to see the U.S. struggle under a barrage of quasi-Marxist criticism but it turns out that’s a very crowded market-space. It seems the Internet Research Agency’s anti-US, anti-capitalist influence operation just couldn’t compete with homegrown anti-US, anti-capitalist sites.