Washington Post fake news graphic
Several American news outlets are considering legal action against the anonymous person or group that last week published a widely distributed list of alleged Russian propaganda outlets and "bona-fide 'useful idiots'" of the Kremlin.

Online publications including the influential news-aggregating Drudge Report, the primary-source publisher WikiLeaks and news outlets of various leanings made "the list" hosted on the website PropOrNot.com.

The Washington Post leaned heavily on the anonymous group's claims last week in an article reporting that "two teams of independent researchers" - including the Foreign Policy Research Institute and PropOrNot - had found a "Russian propaganda effort helped spread 'fake news'" ahead of the recent presidential election.

The term "fake news" has become a flashpoint since the election, with many mainstream media outlets claiming an epidemic of bogus reporting during the election campaign, soliciting stiff pushback from independent outlets that say the term is being used in a bid to censor social media and news platforms of independent viewpoints.

The anonymous website offers no individual analysis to justify its listing of sites, many of them with political views distinct from the mainstream media, such as the Ron Paul Institute, Antiwar.com, and the finance blogs Zero Hedge and Naked Capitalism.

The list includes actual Russian government-funded outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik News but does not distinguish them from the large group declared guilty of "echoing Russian propaganda."

"I haven't had any financial damages yet, so that's the only reason I haven't started a libel suit," says Doug Owen, senior editor of Blacklisted News, a popular independent news-hosting website.

The editor of a separate news and commentary website said his organization also is considering a possible libel lawsuit, perhaps as a cooperative effort with other sites on the list. He asked not to be named as this point but said a decision on whether to sue likely would come "fairly soon."

Mark Allin, chief operating officer of The Above Network, which runs the large news discussion board AboveTopSecret.com, says "at this time we are reviewing our options, nothing is off the table."

Two editors at the progressive news site CounterPunch also say they are keeping their options open as they work to determine who tarred them as Russian propagandists.

"It's totally ridiculous - apparently they've never even read what I've written on Russia in Syria!" editor Joshua Frank says in an email. In June, he condemned Russia's "murderous air bombardments" producing "piles of dead kids" in Syria and predicted the ultimate demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally.

"My own writings on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin have been nothing but critical," adds Jeffrey St. Clair, the other CounterPunch editor, adding that "the Russian writers we've published, such as Boris Kagarlitsky, are Russian dissidents."

St. Clair says CounterPunch is "exploring our options and digging on our own into the misty background of PropOrNot."

The Washington Post reported that the executive director of PropOrNot spoke with the paper "on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia's legions of skilled hackers."

For now, the identity of PropOrNot's operator or operators remains stubbornly hidden, as the site is registered with Domains By Proxy, which allows for anonymity. Legal action might have better success at unmasking the individual or entity, which directs inquires to a Gmail email address and maintains accounts on Facebook, Twitter and reddit.

Journalists including Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton of the Intercept and Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone described the 200-website list as a present-day example of McCarthyism, a term named for former Sen. Joe McCarthy, who infamously claimed in 1950 he had a list of 205 communists within the State Department without providing evidence. The Intercept said the Post story ironically peddled "fake news" itself.

PropOrNot's methodology for identifying Russian propaganda distributors is unclear.

"We have used a combination of manual and automated analysis, including analysis of content, timing, technical indicators, and other reporting, in order to initially identify ('red-flag') the following as Russian propaganda outlets," the website claims. "We then confirmed our initial assessment by applying whatever criteria we did not originally employ during the red-flag process, and we reevaluate our findings as needed."

The person or people who operate PropOrNot - which describes itself as "an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including professional experience in computer science, statistics, public policy, and national security affairs" - did not immediately respond to a request for comment.