Like me, until recently you got most of your news from PeaceData.net. It was where you looked to form your opinions, including the all-important one about which way to vote. What you missed on PeaceData you caught up with via Facebook memes and Tweets from people you do not know.
Or maybe not. Maybe like nearly everyone on planet Earth you have no idea what I’m talking about and never looked at the now-defunct PeaceData site. That reality should pretty much end the discussion, but this is 2020. So you must know by now that Facebook claims an unvisited web site named PeaceData was actually a Russian influence operation targeting voters in the United States, all the while posing as an independent news outlet. PeaceData’s sneaky tactics included hiring real freelance “journalists” to write about U.S. politics and racial tensions from their parents’ basements.
PeaceData also operated 13 Facebook accounts, now suspended, supposedly using fake identities and “coordinated inauthentic behavior” by people with some kind of link “to individuals associated with past activity by the Internet Research Agency,” the Russkie company which U.S. intelligence officials say was part of Comrade Trump’s 2016 win.
Yep, that old story: Russians, social media, blah. To say PeaceData itself truly does not matter, especially in relation to the attention it has received in death, gives too much credit to not mattering. What does matter is how the intel community, quasi-private tech firms, the media, and the Democrats worked together to exaggerate the threat and create the narrative outcome of “foreign influence.” Pay attention; this is the magician revealing how the trick is done.
It seems the Russians have gotten so good at influencing cow-like Americans that only five percent of English-language articles on PeaceData actually concerned the U.S. election, out of over 700 articles published. You’d think no one would have even noticed they existed. However, a company called Graphika nonetheless told Facebook to conclude “this facet of the operation suggests an attempt to build a left-wing audience and steer it away from Biden’s campaign.” See, the conclusion from Graphika is by making almost no impact whatsoever, PeaceData was actually “trying harder and harder to hide.” It worked; Graphika found most of the English-language posts achieved only single-digit engagement.
Back to net nanny Graphika for a moment. We don’t know who funds them. Their venture capital was raised privately, in two tranches of about three million dollars each, in 2014 and 2019. We do know who they work with. Their current “Innovation Officer” is Camille Francois, who once worked for Google’s analytics offshoot Jigsaw before quitting to run a project for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, alongside now Graphika CEO John Kelly (no relation to the Marine.) Their December 2018 reporting helped Democrats “prove” the Russians used Facebook and Twitter to influence the 2016 election. Graphika also has ties to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Defense Department’s Minerva Initiative. If you look at their stuff you realize they write like spooks, talk like spooks, and snitch out news sites like spooks.
What is missing from Graphika’s spooky work is any evidence whatsoever of any actual influence on the only thing that matters: how people vote. Graphika offers nothing quantitative, claiming only that by using American freelancers PeaceData was part of the “fabric” of communities and this made them credible. A step up from 2016 efforts, which relied on what Graphika said were foreign “trolls who typically researched American life so they could more effectively pose as U.S. citizens online. One key trick was to watch American TV shows like House of Cards.”
One is inclined to imagine here the customer service rep with a south Indian accent who asks you to call him “Mike” and wonders “How it goes my man in that American town of Iowa?” Older readers, please substitute Boris and Natasha voices.
So who are these nefarious American writers unknowingly selling out their country? TheNew York Times tracked down one who ended up writing for no money somehow, though PeaceData rates of $75-$200 per article fluttered below average (lots of unknown sites recruit freelancers for small payouts; PeaceData used Guru). This particular PeaceData journalist also once played Rusty in Starlight Express before selling insurance. One of his recent articles outlines his battle with dementia. Sorry to pick on the poor guy, but the NYT profiled him and it seems using such services to influence an election may not be the best use of those rubles.
He did write a nice piece claiming Susan Rice would have made a fine Vice President. One point in her favor was “I challenge anyone to find a video, or statement which shows Susan Rice raising her temper, shouting, acting hysterical or making comments.” Rice of course is known for her signature profanity and temper; here’s The Washington Postcalling her out for describing Lindsey Graham as a “piece of sh*t.” Her f-bombs are legendary. She famously flipped the bird at Richard Holbrooke, told France’s UN. ambassador “you’re not going to drag us into your sh*tty war” and drew complaints of disrespect from allies on the UN Security Council.
But before just calling a Susan Rice-like bullsh*t on this whole sad attempt to frighten Americans into believing foreigners are here to steal our precious bodily Internet fluids, let’s go have a look at some of what else PeaceData had to say.
For example, here’s a quote from a PeaceData article about Q-Anon: “The effort to mainstream conspiracy is meant to distract from the true mechanisms of exploitation and alienation, while allowing for the continued consolidation of capital and upending norms with power grabs. As liberal institutions fail and capitalism continues to deliver uncertainty, the extension of a false mythos–that promises to yield revolutionary change and free the masses–gives allure to desperately confused people.”
Ok, that was too easy, somebody just held on to their Socialism 101 textbook. Another PeaceData article, on the post office, is lifted idea-for-idea from the NYT: “One way or another, the truth always comes out and with President Donald Trump, his motives were especially apparent after a news conference in the White House Briefing Room. He admitted on Thursday he opposed additional funding for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in order to make it more difficult to deliver mail-in ballots. Trump’s desire to not expand on voting by mail further sent society into a chaotic state amidst a pandemic.” The NYT said “President Trump stirred new questions on Thursday about whether he would seek to hold up new money to the Postal Service to impede mail-in voting this fall in the middle of the pandemic.” Kinda the same thing, but one is Russkie propaganda and the other is the New York Times.
It is very unclear that any of this is illegal. Foreign organizations hire American writers all the time. And the line between “taking an editorial stance” and “influencing an election” lies closer to how paranoid you are than anything in the law. That did not stop the FBI from telling social media to act against PeaceData based on Graphika tattling. The action Facebook (and Twitter, who called PeaceData “Russian state actors”) took against PeaceData was based entirely on so-called violations of Terms of Service. That allows the social media giants to show off how they are doing something to, whatever, save democracy. Facebook was not asked to return $480 in advertising money PeaceData spent.
PeaceData doesn’t matter by itself. The real value in this fluffy jihad against a no-name site is to create a talking point to allow the MSM and Democrats to announce again that Trump is being helped by a foreign power, that our electoral process is corrupt if Trump wins, and to revive whatever distant warm, wet memories the faithful had of Russiagate. A little daydreaming that maybe the old tricks will work this time where they have failed ever before.
For the rest of us, no big deal, just a glimpse behind the scenes of another Deep State information op where under the cover of blaming foreign collusion, corporate America, the intel community, and the media hide their own collusion, here, in the Twilight Zone of democracy.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.