During the 2016 presidential campaign, Russia operated a concerted disinformation effort that targeted African-Americans more than any other demographic group. Its aim was to maximize social and political polarization, thus it pushed both the far right and the far left; one of its key focuses was to stoke racial conflict.
As a researcher of disinformation, I expected to see the same kind of interference again for 2020. After all, it had ‘worked’ four years ago, and right now, the nationwide protests against racist policing would seem a perfect opportunity to play both sides, to shrink the center ground and maximize division.
But what we see now is different. Russian state-sponsored media targeting U.S. audiences, particularly RT, have abandoned playing provocateur on both sides. They are running with an unflinchingly racist line, undermining the legitimacy and agency of the Black Lives Matter movement, that echoes right-wing propaganda in Russia itself.
Early signs of this trend emerged when RT amplified a conspiracy theory imagining George Soros behind the riots in Minneapolis. The article was immediately circulated throughout QAnon networks. In subsequent days, RT doubled down on their opposition to Black Lives Matter, with a video piece claiming the protests were backed by familiar bogeyman George Soros. That piece was credited to the right-wing disinformation outfit, Project Veritas, and was even hashtagged #DefundAntifa.
The next stage was to grudgingly admit the Floyd murder was wrong, but…"[T]rying to turn this violent ex-con into a Mandela-like martyr does this crusade a great disservice.”
The headline of the piece (“George Floyd didn’t deserve to die, but it’s WRONG that he’s being hailed as some sort of saint”) tracked precisely the language used by the pro Trump hard right, not least former Turning Point USA communications director Candace Owen who, in an interview with Glenn Beck, declared, "The fact that [Floyd] has been held up as a martyr sickens me." The video was then retweeted by President Donald Trump.
RT’s editorial line quickly doubled down on the contention that the Floyd protests demonstrated the death of liberalism, and the victory of regressive radicals pushing the false idea of "white privilege."
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The messages capitalized on white pride, insisting that prostration to "#BLM mobs," the vanguard of a "new racist ideology" forcing "whites [to] bow to people of color," is 'killing liberalism." Headlines lamented "pathetic" responses marked by white "guilt and self-loathing," and bravely ‘exposed’ the rationale for the protests: "The idea is to cause trouble for trouble’s sake and then blame everyone else – imperialists, capitalists, the police – for causing it." They asked if these "radical activists" have a "true cause" at all.
RT editor-in-chief of RT, Margarita Simonyen, even posted a racist diatribe telling “Minnesota negrs” [negroes] to “beat white people until they’re black.”
RT had only just got started churning up the populist, right-wing side of the “culture war.” One article raised sound and fury about HBO Max pulling the nostalgic Confederate 'lost cause' film, Gone with the Wind. Another headline criticized the “culture police keen to purge historical racism.”
Stodgy pundit George Galloway, who was sacked by talkRADIO for anti-Semitism last year, took to RT to condemn efforts to remove monuments to Britain’s imperial past as a "cultural revolution" in service to “the country’s ruling elite” and compared the Black Lives Matter campaign against statues of historical racists to book burnings by the Nazis.
Of course, Galloway couldn’t help seasoning his piece with a supportive embrace of the Assad regime, slamming the British people’s indifference towards "Arab lives in Syria" under siege from "fanatic hordes seeking to destroy the secular Arab Republic."
RT continues to attack the West as racist and imperialist, but they also gymnastically reframe Black Lives Matter itself as a movement endowed with privilege, serially calling it an "establishment" movement, supported by none other than members of the British royal family. That attempt to rewrite the grassroots authenticity of the protests also lay the ground for fomenting resentment over riots and looting.
It should hardly be surprising that the narratives on America’s protests pushed by state-sponsored Russian media consistently undermine the agency and authenticity of U.S. civil society movements: Russia equally rejects the authenticity of social movements in Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Hong Kong. Indeed, in Hong Kong, RT accused the pro-democracy movement of hypocrisy for not filling the streets for Black Lives Matter too, taking it as obvious proof of its real character: “a convenient tool at the Trump administration’s disposal.”
RT anchor Dan Cohen went further in denying the Hong Kong protesters’ autonomous grounds for resisting Beijing, declaring both they and the Minneapolis police and the "represent the U.S. oligarchy. US elites want to stomp China like their cop killed George Floyd."
China’s propaganda line on Black Lives Matter also cultivates the hypocrisy thesis. The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, described as "China’s FOX News," Hu Xijin, blasted "democratic" America’s "double standards," comparing Hong Kong’s yearlong "chaos," which he claims has not involved any use of military force, but after a mere three days of chaos, "Trump publicly threatened the use of firepower" and bringing in the troops.
China burst onto the global disinformation scene earlier this year when its foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, tweeted out articles from sites traditionally supported by Russia and Iran proclaiming COVID-19 to be an American bioweapon.
The Chinese government uses armies of hundreds of thousands of fake state-controlled social media accounts, and thanks to the long-term efforts of Russia and Iran, they have a thriving community of spooks, conspiracy theorists and fascists to pull from. Through conferences, support for "alternative" news sites and a subsidized class of willing foreign pundits, the three countries have made disinformation into their own cottage industry.
Not to be left out of the BLM disinformation feeding frenzy, the American Herald, a site reported by CNN to be based in and backed by Iran, and recently banned by Facebook, ran a recent editorial insisting social media companies "are becoming enforcers of the dictates of the Deep State," including "George Soros-funded agency, Black Lives Matter."
When a One American News Network report promoted by President Trump denied the injuries of a Buffalo, NY, senior citizen pushed to the ground by police, activists around the world familiar with disinformation techniques immediately identified the genre of war crimes denial popularized by Russian media in Syria. Indeed, the reporter has been featured by Russian state news agency Sputnik News — much to the chagrin of Kremlin defenders like conspiracy theorist Jimmy Dore.
From RT to American Herald Tribune, a number of sites supporting the general derangement passing as a conservative appraisal of current protest movements have cited articles and posts from a blog called The Grayzone Project.
Recently deprecated (downgraded as a reliable source) by Wikipedia, Grayzone has gained currency for its unflinching support for authoritarian dictators and denial of war crimes in Syria. However, the site’s editor Max Blumenthal humiliated himself in recent weeks by accusing a CNN crew of being a group of undercover policemen near the scene of a protest.
The Russian propaganda machine and its acolytes are bringing their reach and their expertise in subverting the genuine rationale of popular mobilizations throughout the world to the BLM protests in the United States.
For an American left that, in large part, has supported efforts to discredit, demean, and disparage mass resistance to authoritarian regimes abroad, the mobilization of Kremlin-backed disinformation and conspiracy theories to a cause close to home is ironic: chickens coming home to roost.
Perhaps those on the American left who so enthusiastically call themselves the "axis of resistance" to "American imperialism" will provide one glint of hope: that their failure to stand with Black Lives Matter, and instead stand with the Kremlin’s racist delegitimization campaign, will finally turn the tide against purveyors of illiberal disinformation like them.
Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in Geography at Portland State University. He is the author of Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press, 2017). Twitter: @areidross
This article was amended on 19 June 2020