Alice Donovan was a prolific freelance writer who didn’t actually exist

Why were so many self-described "alternative" outlets willing to publish Russian propaganda? (CREDIT: GETTY/SEFA KARACAN)

In August 2016, a few months before the presidential election, writer Luke Rudkowski tweeted out a link to a story on We Are Change. The site, founded by Rudkowski and currently boasting over 500,000 followers on Facebook, says it’s an “independent media organization” whose “goal is to create a community of truth-seekers and peacemakers who share a commitment to nonviolent action.”

The story Rudkowski shared with his followers — now at nearly 75,000 on Twitter, as of early 2018 — didn’t seem, on its face, to fit the site’s stated goal. The headline read, “Russia to Destroy Terrorists In Aleppo During Naval Drills.”

Alice Donovan wrote the story, which claimed that “the Kremlin organized the humanitarian corridors to not only help Syrian citizens to leave Aleppo but destroy terrorist forces who still fight against [Bashar al-Assad’s] regime and kill civilians.” In all, the piece effectively acted as a press release for the Russian Defense Ministry.

And now we know why.

Late last month, the Washington Post detailed how “Alice Donovan” didn’t exist — that, in reality, the person behind the “Alice Donovan” persona was a Russian operative posing as a freelance journalist, tracked for months by the FBI. During those months, “Donovan” managed to land dozens of articles in so-called “alternative” far-left and far-right media sites.

“Alice Donovan” was also identified in a September article in the New York Times on Russian operatives setting up fake American Facebook accounts, pushing followers to read hacked emails. Despite that September coverage, according to the Post, the “Donovan” persona is “still pitching stories to U.S. publications.”

One of those outlets — the one where “Alice Donovan” appears to have found the greatest success — was We Are Change. All told, Donovan managed to publish over two dozen pieces with the site, with a related Twitter bio saying she is “currently collaborating with” We Are Change.

The Twitter bio for “Alice Donovan,” whose account remains up.

The stories “Alice Donovan” published on We Are Change included claims that the Obama administration was supplying weapons to ISIS, that the U.S. was supporting “child beheaders” in Syria, and that “the emails Julian Assange has picked up from inside the Democratic Party … have exposed Hillary Clinton in a major way — and almost no one is reporting on it.”

To be sure, We Are Change regularly pushes any number of conspiracies: A 2011 run-down from the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that Sept. 11 conspiracies remain We Are Change’s “bread and butter,” with Rudkowski “particularly worried about the alleged role in the supposedly imminent ‘New World Order’ of organizations such as the Bilderberg group and the Trilateral Commission.” And “Alice Donovan” appeared happy to jump on the conspiracy bandwagon, with one of her pieces highlighting “7 Insane U.S. Government Conspiracies That Actually Happened” — a story Rudkowski also promoted.

Following the revelations that “Alice Donovan” was, in reality, a Russian operative duping American editors, We Are Change removed all of the related posts.

All that remains of the “Alice Donovan” articles from We Are Change.

However, the site has not issued any kind of statement, either about the articles removed or changes to editorial policy. Rudkowski did not respond to ThinkProgress’s questions, but said elsewhere that “we were totally played. … The whole thing is totally embarrassing.”

Indeed, Rudkowski and We Are Change were far from the sole targets for “Alice Donovan.” As the Post detailed, CounterPunch, which has over 120,000 followers on Facebook, had also run multiple stories from “Alice Donovan.” Attempts in late 2017 to confirm the identify of the writer failed, and CounterPunch proceeded to remove the material — including write-ups of Russian operations in Syria — in question.

Unlike We Are Change, CounterPunch editors Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank issued a 7,600-word statement explaining their relationship with “Donovan,” and why they took the related articles down. The editors also admitted that they ran the articles from “Donovan” because “they were interesting and timely.” They further wrote that, upon examination, the articles appeared heavily plagiarized.

Veterans Today, another popular site for whom “Alice Donovan” wrote, removed all of the related articles, but dismissed the entire affair. Editor Kevin Barrett, a self-proclaimed 9/11 Truther, claimed that the Washington Post piece wrote that “Alice Donovan” is “a Kremlin troll who spearheaded the Russian takeover of America.” (The Post article does not make this claim.) Editor Gordon Duff added that he was “not sure Alice Donovan exists frankly but her material appeared original” and was “reviewed by an editorial board and published as relevant.”

As it is, Veterans Today was the subject of a 2017 POLITICO Magazine piece on Moscow’s attempts to target American military members. Not only have the site and sister publications built multiple relationships with Kremlin-sponsored entities — with one University of Washington professor saying that Veterans Today was an “active partner” in helping push Russian propaganda — but its board includes Eugene Khrushchev, who, according to his listed biography, currently works at Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Unsurprisingly, “Alice Donovan” found her first publishing success at Veterans Today, using awkward English to condemn Turkey’s downing of Russian aircraft in 2015.

Still, where sites like Veterans Today or CounterPunch have removed the “Alice Donovan” articles wholesale, other sites have kept the material up, in some cases not even bothering to alert readers about the writer’s identity.

A site called Popular Resistance, amidst a handful of typos, said they were leaving material from “Donovan” up but “wanted readers to be aware of this controversy.” Others, like MintPress News — which had previously blamed Syrian chemical attacks on rebel forces — haven’t touched the material from “Alice Donovan.” Nor has Activist Post, whose motto stakes that it publishes “propaganda for peace, love, and liberty.” Neither MintPress News nor Activist Post responded to ThinkProgress’ questions.

It remains unclear why, specifically, “Alice Donovan” found such success publishing with a host of self-described “alternative” media outlets. Some combination of editorial failure, thirst for traffic, and outright inability to discern fact from fiction (or perhaps a failure to perform even basic fact-checking) seems to have allowed a Russian operative to swindle these outlets — and their readers — into publishing Russian propaganda, either in pursuit of undercutting Clinton’s campaign or whitewashing the Assad regime.

Of course, any number of other outlets also unwittingly published fake Russian Twitter feeds, which had posed as outraged Americans. But the work of “Alice Donovan” presents a clear desire to target self-described “alternative” media — a move, and an escalation, that certain of these outlets would apparently rather ignore than address.