A new twist on Russian meddling in the presidential election: Pay honest reporters to do it

Lou Carlozo September 2, 2020

Behold, the face of Facebook fakery: a post from the Russian-sponsored phony news website Peacedata. (Credit: New York Times/Facebook)

Every time I look forward to writing a mundane column—say, on the virtues of oat milk in a smart journalist’s diet—some big news story breaks that concerns those who cover the news. This week, it involves:

  • The Humble Braggers at Facebook
  • Our Friends the Russians, and
  • Journos Out of a Job who will work for food, and in this case, Our Fiends the Russians.

The New York Times—more a source of fake news than Our Foes the Russians, say Those On the Right Who Are Wrong—reports that Facebook has suspended accounts that belong to that infamous Kremlin-backed group known as the Internet Research Agency. (So did Twitter.) Then came a tidbit, easy to miss, that keeps newsroom eagles up at night: In creating the bogus Peacedata news site, the I.R.A. advertised for, and found, American writers to unwittingly help their cause.

Other news accounts detailed how these writers were—surprise—freelancers on the lean side of things, hungry for work and willing to put in their time for chump change: $75 an article. All they had to do was answer a cattle call via an online job board and they were in. The Times talked to one such scribe duped by the Russians:

The writer asked to remain anonymous because he did not want his professional career affected by his unknowing cooperation in a Russian operation. … In his earlier work, the writer had frequently challenged whether [presidential candidate] Joe Biden represented the progressive values of the Democratic Party and whether he deserved the vote of left-wing Americans. He said his articles for the website were barely edited.

He was happy, he added, to be receiving payment for his work. [my emphasis]

We All Have to Make a Living

How about that? And hey, I get it. When I got laid off from a prestigious gig at the Chicago Tribune in 2009, there went my $75,000 salary. Staring at a stack of bills that screamed “PAST DUE,” I took any and all work that came my way, including a sponsored content gig writing about how to get rid of cockroaches in your home. I was happy to have minimal editing, too: The faster I could crank stuff out and get paid, the better.

Not that I was satisfied in the least. It was a far cry from interviewing Robert Downey Jr. and penning a nationally syndicated personal finance column. (Lucky for me, I figured out how to regain my footing: I was the roach who could not be squashed.)

So yes, making a living as a scribe with a journalist’s heart is harder than ever. I know few if any freelancers who can do it without mixing in content writing, ghostwriting, blogging for corporate clients, special commissions and the like. After awhile, one paid gig looks like the next and all paychecks cash the same. The news cycle, meanwhile, is faster than ever. Deadlines never cease. If you serve seven masters instead of one, responsible reporting becomes an asterisk, not a mission. You could even make stuff up and probably get away with it for years and years. You and I know one prominent person who does it multiple times every day, using Twitter as his personal media outlet.

Selling Snake Oil and Fish Oil

So let’s not jump on the backs of any journalists duped into becoming foot soldiers for Comrade Putin. But what we should do, must do, is pause. Lesson learned:

Never, ever should the pursuit of a buck make us lackeys for liars. We must apply the same level of reporting to scoping the outlets that recruit us as we do our news stories. You’re worth far more than a paycheck. Your reputation is priceless: Don’t sell it to the highest bidder, or any bidder. 

It seems remarkable, borderline heartbreaking to say that. But if you’re on the dole and Alex Jones offers you a cushy gig writing for his cesspool Infowars, do you take it? Do you rationalize it as just another day at the office? “Hey, if I don’t do it, someone else will—I might as well grab the cash.”

If you wouldn’t do it, I’ll bet you know someone else who would.

Then you get to craft the stuff of Pulitzers, like this piece of swill by Chis Menahan: “KYLE RITTENHOUSE SPEAKS: ‘I JUST WANT TO THANK EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART’.” You also get the privilege of helping hawk the Infowars brand of “Ultimate Fish Oil” tablets. I’m serious, this really exists. Yummmm. Ultimate Fish Oil goes great with media snake oil.

Facebook: For Posting Pictures of Your Hamburger, Not the News

Speaking of snake oil, that thunderous sound you hear is Facebook patting itself on the back for catching the Russians this time. Never mind that, as the Times notes:

Facebook and Twitter, which were slow to react to wide-ranging disinformation campaigns on their services in 2016 and continue to face criticism—even from their own employees—that they are not doing enough to confront the issue, said they were warned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the Russian effort.

Read: FBI does the heavy lifting, Facebook takes the hefty credit. Let us not forget, though, that Facebook is in its own way worse, much worse, than the dude who cranked out trash-for-cash stories for today’s KGB. This excellent piece by Wired’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein details how Zuckerberg’s lust to crush Twitter’s dominance in distributing news online allowed foreign actors to use it as a smear and propaganda platform—and sway the results of the 2016 election. Facebook confused easy-to-manipulate social media for responsibly reported mass media, which is a lot like mistaking for Kyle Rittenhouse for Jacob Blake. From the Wired piece:

Zuckerberg pursued a strategy he has often deployed against competitors he cannot buy: He copied, then crushed. He adjusted Facebook’s News Feed to fully incorporate news (despite its name, the feed was originally tilted toward personal news) and adjusted the product so that it showed author bylines and headlines. Then Facebook’s emissaries fanned out to talk with journalists and explain how to best reach readers through the platform.

News Flash: Social Media Still Champions Fake News

In other words, Zuck and Company taught reporters, and those who posed as them, how to game its own system. Fast forward through Facebook’s fake-o repentance and this year’s election. Does anyone think Russia is through with its media manipulation? You know the drill: If Facebook the Donut-Loving Cop caught one wicked-smart motorist running the red light, how many more are getting away with it? (What is it with me and these Title Case Nicknames today?)

The only difference this year is that Our Fakers the Russians had the balls to get hungry American writers in on their criminality. Where otherwise innocent bystanders are concerned, nothing speaks like money in the pursuit of all evil; it was even used to recruit fake protestors to overthrow Guatemala’s government in 1954. And, if we’re not incessantly vigilant, it will be used in 2020 to co-opt our own journalists to stir the pot in an already contentious and dangerous election cycle. Hell, it already has.

If that continues, whose fault would that be? Assuming we don’t take responsibility first, one reporter and social media colossus at a time?

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All views expressed were plagiarized from Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. lou@qwoted.com

This week on Lou Carlozo’s “Bankadelic” podcast: Chris Doner and Mark Allen of Access Softek share their secrets of fintech innovation culled from 75 years of award-winning experience.