Vladimir Putin reads the Boston Times. Why aren’t you? Photo (cc) 2022 by Presidential Executive Office of Russia.

Call it a tale of Russian propaganda, international intrigue and pink slime. The New York Times today has a fascinating story (free link) about John Mark Dougan, a former law-enforcement official in Florida and Maine who has become a significant producer of online disinformation on behalf of Russia. Dougan’s digital network promotes lies about everything from claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a cocaine smuggler to the fanciful notion that the CIA and the Ukrainian government are working together to harm Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

One of Dougan’s many vehicles, according to the story, is something called the Boston Times. Hmmm. Whenever Ellen Clegg and I talk about our book, “What Works in Community News,” we mention the rise of websites designed to look like legitimate sources of local news — my rough definition of pink slime.

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Our favorite is the North Boston News (North Boston is lovely this time of year), part of the 1,200 or so sites controlled by Metric Media, which in turn goes back to the earliest days of pink slime about a dozen years ago. Those sites are nominally right-wing, though they mainly carry outdated filler like “5.5% of citizens unemployed in Essex County in 2021” and “2022: 14.5% of Essex County students played sports on collegiate teams.” That said, there is a conspiracy-minded story at North Boston News right now falsely claiming that “Jewish left-wing activist” George Soros was behind the recent pro-Palestinian encampment at MIT, which suggests there may be worse to come.

But the Boston Times? That was a new one. I couldn’t get it to pop on Google, yet somehow DuckDuckGo managed to find it. The site seems to be mix of lurid tabloid stories (“Florida Woman’s Public Sex Escape”) and weird pro-Trump content (“Trump Orders Arrest of Journalist for Reporting on Court Filings”). Minor news from New York City is featured, too. Click on the verticals, including “Politics,” “Ukraine War” and “Gaza War,” and the Russian ties become more obvious and disturbing. Here, for instance, is the headline to a false story under “Investigations”: “New Evidence Emerges of Ukraine’s Horrific ‘Forced Fertilization’ Program, Inspired by Nazi Lebensborn.”

The “About” page is a hoot. Here’s how it begins:

Since its inception in 1972, located in the heart of Massachusetts, the Boston Times has been a beacon of journalistic integrity, illuminating the stories that shape our city, our nation, and our world. Founded with a vision to provide a platform for truth, fairness, and accountability, the Boston Times has evolved into a trusted source of news and information for generations of readers.

Of course, there’s no evidence that the Boston Times even existed until recently (I’m not counting a paper by that name that was published between 1887 and 1915), and the bylines, according to The New York Times’ story, may be generated by artificial intelligence. It looks like AI had a hand in designing the logo, too. Among other things, the Boston Times pledges to deliver “Truth and Uboutelicy.” All right, then!

Reach seems to be limited, especially given that I couldn’t find it on Google. I couldn’t find an account for it on Twitter/X, either, although I did find tweets debunking the site as Russian disinformation, such as this one by David Puente. But I also found some of the propaganda on the Boston Times site being promoted by accounts that are probably bots. That sort of automated amplification is the point.

Is the goal of projects such as the Boston Times to persuade? Probably not. Rather, the goal is to “flood the zone with shit,” to quote the political philosopher Steve Bannon. These days truth floats in a sea of falsehood. Its purveyors hope you’ll just throw up your hands at the thought of trying to sort it all out. Don’t fall for it. Get your news from reliable, verified sources.

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