Analysts tracking Russian influence operations find a feedback loop between Kremlin propaganda and far-right memes.
This article has been updated to include a comment provided by Sputnik after this story was published. Sputnik’s full comment can be found here.
Angee Dixson joined Twitter on Aug. 8 and immediately began posting furiously — about 90 times a day. A self-described American Christian conservative, Dixson defended President Donald Trump’s response to the unrest in Charlottesville, criticized the removal of Confederate monuments and posted pictures purporting to show violence by left-wing counterprotesters.
“Dems and Media Continue to IGNORE BLM and Antifa Violence in Charlottesville,” she wrote above a picture of masked demonstrators labeled “DEMOCRAT TERROR.”
But Dixson appears to have been a fake, according to an analysis by Ben Nimmo and Donara Barojan of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank. The account has been shut down. Dixson’s profile picture was stolen from a young Instagram celebrity (a German model rumored to have dated Leonardo DiCaprio). Dixson used a URL shortener that is a tell for the sort of computer program that automatically churns out high volumes of social media posts whose authorship is frequently disguised. And one of her tweets attacked Sen. John McCain for his alleged support of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, echoing language in tweets from Russian outlets RT and Sputnik.
The same social media networks that spread Russian propaganda during the 2016 election have been busily amplifying right-wing extremism surrounding the recent violence in Charlottesville, according to researchers who monitor the activity. It’s impossible to tell how much of the traffic originates from Russia or from mercenary sources. But there were hordes of automated bots generating Twitter posts and much more last week to help make right-wing conspiracy theories and rallying cries about Charlottesville go viral.
A sample of 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations have been promoting hashtags for Charlottesville such as “antifa,” a term for activists on the far left; and “alt-left,” a term Trump used, which was interpreted by many as suggesting an equivalence between liberal demonstrators and white nationalists in the so-called alt-right.
The sample includes accounts that are openly pro-Russian and push content from state-controlled outlets RT and Sputnik, which a joint U.S. intelligence assessment concluded are “part of Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” The sample also includes those, like “Angee Dixson’s,” that seem to be written by typical Americans. And it follows automated bots that help make messages go viral and even users around the world who spread the Kremlin’s messages whether or not they mean to support Russia. The network is tracked by four researchers working with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund that seeks to expose efforts to undermine Western democracy.
(A spokesperson for Sputnik took issue with the assertions about it in this article, providing 22 links to the news service’s articles that she called “highly critical of the president’s response to Charlottesville.” She argued that to “ignore that reality … would only mean that you are fixing the facts to push a false narrative.” The spokesperson also disputed that Sputnik is a vehicle for any purported Russian disinformation campaign.)
“The Russian influence networks we track are definitely amplifying the broader alt-right chatter about Charlottesville,” one of the researchers, J.M. Berger, said. “The major themes they have been pushing are the ‘both sides are violent’ argument and conspiracy theories that George Soros was behind the counter-protests, although the latter has been trending more sporadically.”
The latest Soros accusation, which PolitiFact found to be baseless, shows another aspect of how messages snowball as they pass between the American right-wing and Russian propagandists, according to Nimmo. A U.S. right-winger asserts a “fact,” a Russian news agency fuses it with a Kremlin narrative, and then American right-wing websites parrot the Russian news agency’s assertion.
Soros, a Hungarian-American investor and major Democratic donor, long ago became a frequent bugaboo for the Kremlin and for Republicans. He funds the Open Society Foundations, which support democracy and development around the world — and they have given money to ProPublica, including its Documenting Hate project, while accounting for less than 3 percent of ProPublica’s revenue so far this year. Many recipients of Soros’ contributions are viewed as politically liberal, but some right-wingers and the Kremlin tend to see his hand (or more precisely, his wallet) in any action they perceive as left-wing.
The accusation that Soros was behind the Charlottesville counter-protesters appeared to have been first uttered by Alex Jones, the conservative conspiracy theorist and provocateur, on Aug. 14. The next day, Lee Stranahan, a host for Sputnik, repeated the claim in several YouTube videos, according to Nimmo. Stranahan was previously a prominent advocate for the #FireMcMaster campaign against national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
The pro-Russian networks are also injecting Russian propaganda about other countries into U.S. far-right circles. After Jones’ InfoWars interviewed Stranahan on Aug. 15, Stranahan’s charge that the U.S. is hypocritical for supporting Nazis in Ukraine (a years-old Kremlin line) while condemning them at home appeared on fringe websites such as Mint Press News, TheLastAmericanVagabond.com, BBSNews and JewWorldOrder, Nimmo found.
“Given the number of channels that propagated the narrative at the same time, it is not possible to say whether a single channel or many different channels inspired the American actors’ linkage of Charlottesville and Ukraine,” Nimmo wrote in a blog post. “What does appear probable is that the U.S. activists derived their narrative directly from the Kremlin and its supporters — and thus amplified Russian disinformation in America.”
Some in the self-described alt-right have embraced Russian support. At an earlier protest of the removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville in May, people chanted“Russia is our friend!”
Tracking disinformation online is challenging because it can be hard to discern users’ motivations and affiliations. But congressional investigators probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election are interested in how social networks spread fake news and propaganda, such as documents stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
“The Internet and social media provide Russia cheap, efficient and highly effective access to foreign audiences with plausible deniability of their influence,” another of the researchers working with the Alliance to Secure Democracy, Clint Watts, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in March. “This pattern of Russian falsehoods and social media manipulation of the American electorate continued through Election Day and persists today.”
Correction, Aug. 25, 2017: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the composition of the 600 accounts tracked by the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The sample includes openly pro-Russian accounts that push content from RT and Sputnik, but RT and Sputnik are not themselves in the sample.