Coverage of 'Russia-gate' is biased, sloppy

Are the Russians messing with U.S. democracy? After a lead story that accused Russia of using social media to throw the last election (“State seen as test for Russia,” Nov. 29) and a follow-up editorial (“The lesson of the Russian Facebook ads in Maryland: They're getting smarter,” Nov. 30), I’m convinced the whole Russia-gate story is just another conspiracy theory.

It’s not just the absurdity of blaming Russia for tilting the election to Donald Trump (which would make Russian President Vladimir Putin the most powerful man in the world). The Sun’s sloppy reporting raises too many questions. The article tried to show that Maryland was a 2015 run-up by Russia for a broader social media campaign to sway the presidential election by “stirring the pot” and “sowing division” following the death of Freddie Gray. After all, of 3,000 "Russian-linked" ads turned over by Facebook last fall, “more than 250 were targeted at Maryland,” the article reported. According to Facebook, about $100,000 was paid to the company by a Russian troll farm that produced the ads between 2015 and 2017, and 126 million people “might have” seen the content of pages from the group.

Well, $100,000, even spread over three years, is a lot of money to the average Baltimorean. And 126 million is a lot of people. But let’s add the context that The Sun didn’t (and journalists routinely do): Facebook’s annual ad revenue is $27 billion (2016) and the social media behemoth has about two billion active monthly users. And “Russian-linked?” There are about 144 million Russians and presumably not all of them work for Mr. Putin. And, how, exactly, are ads about “police interactions with African-Americans in Baltimore” (another word is “murders”) and the death of unarmed black suspects in custody “stirring the pot?” Again, context would have helped.

The nation is roiled by the deaths of unarmed black people in police custody. In Baltimore, the police are operating under a federal consent decree calling for significant reductions of police power to reduce police misconduct. The article doesn’t explain how people looking at ads on Facebook pointing out these unfortunate facts is “an easy issue for Russians to exploit.” Nor does the article pass the journalism smell test: It’s peppered with weasel words and phrases like “might have been” (twice), “could have very well,” “probably,” “I think,” “it’s difficult to pin down,” and “appeared designed” — words that made this reader ask, Why am I reading this? And why is it today’s lead story?

Finally, the lack of balance: Other than noting that Mr. Putin denied helping to elect Mr. Trump, the article didn’t cite a single expert who disagreed with its breathless conclusion that Russia is meddling in U.S. internal affairs. If any country, whether it’s Russia, Britain, Israel or China, is subverting our democracy, it should be investigated and reported using accepted standards of journalism that include context, balance and fact-checking. Anything else is propaganda. Let’s discard evidence-free scapegoating of Russia and the “Russian meddling” myth to the dustbin of conspiracy theories.

Joe Surkiewicz, Baltimore

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