A Bible Burning, a Russian News Agency and a Story Too Good to Check Out

Alma L. Figueroa

Mr. Cheong, for instance, does not appear to be in any way complicit. He regularly tweets multiple videos a night from the protests and, he said, “It definitely wasn’t my intention to drive just the one story.”

But the Bible video fit his politics, and his tweet about it caught fire.

After this article was published, Ruptly said in a statement that it was “shockingly dishonest,” noting that The Times had reported that the video was not manipulated in any way and that the Russian news agency had run a livestream of the event. But, Ruptly said, The Times “then claims that this verified evidence is now disinformation; Orwell would be proud.”

Most of the Russian efforts garner far less notice, and unfold on far less well known websites. American officials late last month identified one of those websites as Inforos, an outlet that they said is controlled by Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, and used to test out various disinformation themes that target Americans, Canadians and Europeans. Covid-19 disinformation, for instance, has spread with the pandemic, and stories about dangers posed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have by now become an old standard.

“Russian intelligence has grown more sophisticated and more highly resourced in their use of online disinformation,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, citing a recent State Department report on Russian disinformation. “The methods used in 2016, seem almost rudimentary and quaint.”

InfoRos, according to current and former American officials, sits atop a GRU-directed network that includes two other nominally independent news sites, OneWorld.Press and InfoBrics. Those sites, in turn, push out stories to alt-right and alt-left sites in North America and Europe that are receptive to the anti-establishment and often-conspiratorial messaging pushed by the Russians.

In some instances, a straight line can be traced from the GRU-run operations to American websites that promote conspiracy theories. One such story appeared in January, when InfoBrics claimed a whistle-blower had revealed that British spies and Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, had orchestrated the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists were fighting government forces. (Investigators determined that the plane had been brought down by a Russian-made missile.)

The story was produced by a research fellow at the Center for Syncretic Studies, a think tank in Serbia that is similarly believed to have ties to Russian intelligence. The article was then published by InfoBrics. In turn, it was picked up by The Duran, an independent website based in Cyprus that often spreads Russian disinformation.

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