What did the Russian government-backed troll calling herself (or himself) Alice Donovan want?
That byline appears in at least 10 different news outlets beginning in 2016 and continuing through October of this year. The FBI believes “Alice Donovan” is the name of “a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls,” according to the Washington Post. She was also actively criticizing not just the Hillary Clinton campaign but Trump-era foreign policy as recently as October.
“Donovan” appears to be the same person identified in one of Scott Shane’s New York Times stories about Russian interference on Facebook: An Alice Donovan outed by Facebook as a Russian intelligence sock puppet approvingly posted links to Kremlin cutout site DCLeaks, particularly its dump of documents related to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.
The 13 publications that published Donovan’s emailed submissions were Counterpunch, Veterans Today, We Are Change, MintPressNews, Global Research, Global Politics, Ground Report, Op-Ed News, Restoring Liberty, Activist Post, The Duran, Popular Resistance, and foreign language outlets Reseau International and Naval Brasil. Most retread the news of the day with what appears to be very little oversight; Counterpunch is both the most traditional and the site with the clearest political perspective.
As a reporter, “Donovan” wrote blog posts that criticized Obama, Hillary Clinton, and allies including Colin Powell—similar to the themes of Russian-backed trolls masquerading as pro-Trump Americans on social media.
But a review of her articles—many of them plagiarized, according to one publication that ran them, the venerable left-wing blog Counterpunch—reveals a number of other areas of interest: Whereas Russian-controlled contributions to right-wing twitter feeds and Facebook pages stoked racism and railed against gun control, the ostensibly leftward prong of the massive Russian disinformation campaign focused on US activity in Syria, Venezuela and Turkey.
Perhaps predictably, some of the sites that published Donovan’s work have reacted largely with shrugs in much the same way that right-wing organizations felt too much was made of pro-cop memes, anti-Hillary jokes, and anti-immigrant sentiment. The origin of the articles was unimportant, suggested both Veterans Today editor Gordon Duff and Counterpunch editors Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank. “I don’t edit what people do. If it’s original, I’ll publish it,” Duff told the Post. “I don’t decide what’s real and not real.” Today Duff wrote his own conspiracy-filled piece about the Post story, primarily to criticize Counterpunch, at Veterans Today.
Counterpunch took a more philosophical tack: “So why did we run five pieces by Alice Donovan?” asked St. Clair and Frank. “First, because they were interesting and timely. The short pieces on Syria, in particular, came at a moment when Trump was engaged in his first big military action and we were eager, perhaps too eager, to publish as many different perspectives as possible on his new, more aggressive policy.”
Another site, We Are Change, didn’t respond to the accusations at all, though it did remove Donovan’s work from its public web presence.
Donovan’s articles on US military presence in the Middle East are unusual. In its mea-sorta-culpa, Counterpunch published a bibliography including as much of Donovan’s work as its writers could find, identifying one post lifted letter-for-letter from a pro-Russian, pro-Bashar al-Assad website called Inside Syria Media Center. Another—also cross-posted, this time with a shady news site called “Ground Report”—called the introduction of special forces troops into Mosul in November 2016 “a large-scale PR-campaign to support the candidate of the Democratic Party Hillary Clinton.”
Others are simply boilerplate anti-NATO, anti-Ukraine propaganda. Another Ground Report piece pushes for the cessation of sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, something the Russian government has pursued by every possible avenue.
But the feature of the Donovan articles that has provoked far less discussion is that, for nearly a year after Trump’s election, they mercilessly criticized him, as well, accusing his administration of fomenting civil war in Venezuela, making note of operations that really did cause tremendous innocent bloodshed in Syria, and stealing quotes and paragraphs from progressive publications including The Guardian and The American Interest to do so.
In short, whoever handles the Donovan account seems to have kept his or her eye on the ball: The goals of the Russian interference and influence campaigns still appear to be a weakened NATO, a withdrawal of US forces from Syria that leaves Moscow-friendly Assad in charge, and the end of punitive sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine and the murder of Sergei Magnitsky.
It may not actually matter to Moscow, or to “Alice Donovan” who is in charge: There’s still Western power abroad, and whether because the Trump administration still houses many Obama-era holdovers, because he has little interest in changing the status quo, or because he genuinely wants to maintain foreign policy continuity with his hated predecessor, the Kremlin still hasn’t achieved its goals.