When Russian troll infiltrates website, editor investigates
Oregon City may not seem like the soft underbelly of American democracy.
But as the public learns more about the hidden propaganda role of Russian "trolls," or fake identities on the internet, an Oregon City man named Jeffrey St. Clair has become an unintentional authority on the subject — by virtue of having been duped by one.
St. Clair is the editor of the popular left-leaning website Counterpunch.org. On Christmas Day, he became the center of the sort of mainstream media news frenzy that he'd normally be critiquing from the sidelines.
That's when the Washington Post disclosed that a writer named "Alice Donovan" —who had contributed to Counterpunch and other alternative media outlets — was one of many fictional writers that the FBI believes was set up to help sway American public opinion and further the agenda of the Russian government. That same day, having been tipped off by the Post, St. Clair published his own in-depth look at Donovan's exploits with his colleague, Joshua Frank.
The Post article highlighted a February 2016 email that St. Clair received from "Donovan" calling herself a "beginner journalist," and how the editor pressed her for information after the Post contacted him.
St. Clair gets about 75 such pitches a day en route to publishing 5,000 stories a year, drawing a million visitors each month to the site.
St. Clair has maintained a sense of humor about it all, but notes that he rejected most of Donovan's articles. He feels the episode has been misinterpreted and also raises disturbing questions that may not be obvious. Meanwhile, he and Frank, his Counterpunch coeditor, have conducted a follow-up investigation that has uncovered a whole "nest" of trolls, he says.
So what lessons has he learned? And how can the rest of us do a better job of discerning propaganda purveyors like Alice Donovan?
Portland Tribune: Tell me about the phone call you got from the Washington Post reporter.
St. Clair: It was unsettling, surprising. He was very casual, he said, "Look, this is a weird question about one of your contributors." And he said that he had been leaked an FBI report ... and it was that the FBI's counterintelligence had been tracking an email address (using) the name Alice Donovan, who they believed was a false identity, I think was the phrase they used, with Russia.
So, I said, "Look, indeed this is really weird." I immediately went into our archives and saw that I had published five stories with her over an 18-month period.
Portland Tribune: What conclusions have you drawn about what her goals were — or his or their goals?
St. Clair: I have not drawn any conclusions about that. Number one, we haven't seen any proof that she is a Russian troll. She obviously was a false identity, we are convinced of that.
From the stories that she sent to us I think it's fair to say her main obsession was the Syrian War, which of course Russia is deeply involved in. If you take a broader lens there were 28 Alice Donovan stories in total. And those were all over the map. She's writing about Turkey, Montenegro, she's writing about Black Lives Matter, she's writing about hacking. There were only a couple of stories on Hillary Clinton's emails.
Portland Tribune: That's a pretty impressive array of areas to cover.
St. Clair: (Laughs) For a beginning war correspondent she was packing a pretty heavy portfolio. It was only later, after we'd tracked down everything she's written, just going with a fine-tooth comb through each of her stories, that I think we could say this is not one person writing this. Number one, she's plagiarized a bunch of other writers. And number two, when you look really closely at the language it's obvious (there were multiple writers involved).
Portland Tribune: What was the tip off?
St. Clair: We found her plagiarizing other writers, one of those appeared on our site. If you will recall, the U.S. coalition had bombed Syrian army regulars ... This was a story essentially presenting the Syrian view of what happened, arguing that this was a deliberate strike on Syrian forces
Well that piece, on the very same day, appeared on two other sites under a different writer's name. There was no way we could have known that at the time because they literally went up at literally the same time. In fact, it is still something of a mystery as to how Alice Donovan could have sent us that piece ...
So we contacted this journalist, a writer named Sophie Mangal, who allegedly works for something called the Inside Syria Media Center, and she said yeah that's my story. And, of course, Alice didn't respond.
Portland Tribune: What more have you found?
St. Clair: We're kind of on the scent for trolls. I mean in a way it was depressing. We published a writer that doesn't exist, that's writing under a pseudonym. And who conned us, we'd been catfished by somebody. We'd published someone who's also a plagiarist.
But also, you're on the scent, it's kind of the thrill of being on the hunt, and this has led us to this whole Inside Syria Media Center. They are a nest of trolls. Every writer that has ever written for them is, I think, a fake identity. Every time we raise questions about a writer of theirs, their byline disappears from the site.
Portland Tribune: How would you describe the trolls?
St. Clair: Alice Donovan is this little minor character; we call her Alice of the 47 Twitter followers. Her 28 stories were kind of innocuous. Nobody follows her on Twitter; it's kind of pathetic in a way. We feel sorry for her.
That's not the situation with the Inside Syria Media Center. Sophie Mangal, for example, placed hundreds of stories on a global network of websites. Thankfully we didn't publish any except the one that was plagiarized (by Donovan). But she was sending pieces every day. I mean some of these people are prolific, producing four or five stories a day with embedded video clips of the Syrian army at work. It's taken us into something we didn't expect, this kind of work of trolling and false personas on independent media. They've appeared on websites that have a much bigger global imprint than poor Alice's stories.
Portland Tribune: So, what do you know about this other "troll" persona, Sophie Mangal?
St. Clair: Well, we know she said that she went to a top tier journalism school in the United States at the University of North Carolina, and they have no record of her. (Laughs) She claims to be 25, but she's probably 67 and sitting in Damascus pounding these things out, I don't know. But she's literally very productive, sending her stuff to all sorts of antiwar left/independent websites. She's just one of them.
Portland Tribune: How did learning about Donovan affect you?
St. Clair: I took it as a really personal affront. Sort of felt betrayed and conned and duped, which is kind of what sparked the intensity of our digging into her work and then this wider world of online trolls.
We're a really open website. We published a lot of professional journalists, a lot of academics (and) activist, nontraditional writers from all across the world. That becomes much more challenging now that you've been burned. I think in the future Counterpunch isn't going to be nearly as open as it was in the past.
Portland Tribune: What's the impact on all of this on the world?
St. Clair: I believe the Russians are all over the U.S. the same way the U.S. is all over Russia. They do what they can to anticipate what's going on, to the extent they can have some influence; I'm sure they're doing that. We may have had a very close encounter with that (in Alice Donovan) as far as I know.
On the other hand, I think it can be really overstated. The headline of the Washington Post piece was, for example, "Kremlin trolls burned across the internet" and the only Kremlin troll they talked about was poor Alice Donovan who had 47 Twitter followers and wrote 28 lightly read stories that were, most of them, fairly innocuous.
Portland Tribune: What should readers' takeaway be? Here we are reading all of this stuff on the internet and it's influencing our views of the world.
St. Clair: That's one of the questions we have. Obviously, it's reader beware when you read anything, whether it' s a (fired plagiarist) Jayson Blair story in the New York Times or a (controversial reporter) Judith Miller story in the New York Times about the Iraq war.
I think that it's not only reader beware, it's read a lot ... as many different points of view as possible.
Portland Tribune: Did Alice Donovan get back to you after the Post contacted you?
St. Clair: She did get back to me — interestingly on the same day we heard from Sophie Mangal.
She responded that due to security reasons she didn't want to talk anymore and we haven't heard from her since.
Portland Tribune: But wouldn't some people say the real story is not that Alice is such a minor player, but that there were hundreds and thousands of her?
St. Clair: I would like to see the metrics of how much that influenced or changed people's thinking. We probably have to dig into that. I don't know.
Portland Tribune: On Jan. 16, Alice Donovan tweeted lyrics from the band The Cranberries after the death of the group's lead singer, Dolores O'Riordan. The choice of lyrics appears to potentially refer to Donovan's recent burst of publicity, saying, "Somewhere in another dimension I can hear you asking me why, tell me can you hear me I'm calling, tell me you can hear me, don't cry."
St. Clair: Who knew she/it was a Cranberries fan? Doesn't this add to the level of uncertainty about this whole affair? At least the troll's got a sense of humor and rather stale tastes in '90s Irish pop.