State Dept. Traces Russian Disinformation Links

State Dept. Traces Russian Disinformation Links


WASHINGTON — Russia continues to use a network of proxy websites to spread pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda in the United States and other parts of the West, according to a State Department report released on Wednesday.

The report is one of the most detailed explanations yet from the Trump administration on how Russia disseminates disinformation, but it largely avoids discussing how Moscow is trying to influence the current campaign. Even as Democrats on Capitol Hill have urged the American government to declassify more information on Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election, President Trump has repeatedly told officials such disclosures are unwelcome.

Most of the report focuses on an ecosystem of websites, many of them fringe or conspiracy minded, that Russia has used or directed to spread propaganda on a variety of topics. Those include an online journal called the Strategic Culture Foundation and other sites, like the Canada-based Global Research. The document builds on information disclosed last week by American officials about Russian intelligence’s control of various propaganda sites.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced the release of the report on Wednesday, said the State Department would offer rewards of up to $10 million for information to help identify any person who, acting at the direction of a foreign government, tries to hack into election or campaign infrastructure.

The report was prepared by the department’s Global Engagement Center, whose mandate is only to examine propaganda efforts outside the United States.

The report states that the Strategic Culture Foundation is directed by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the S.V.R., and stands as “a prime example of longstanding Russian tactics to conceal direct state involvement in disinformation and propaganda outlets.” The organization publishes a wide variety of fringe voices and conspiracy theories in English, while trying to obscure its Russian government sponsorship.

“The Kremlin bears direct responsibility for cultivating these tactics and platforms as part of its approach of using information and disinformation as a weapon,” said Lea Gabrielle, the coordinator of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.

Absent from the report is any mention of how one of the writers for the Strategic Culture Foundation weighed in this spring on a Democratic primary race in New York. The writer, Michael Averko, published articles on the foundation’s website and in a local publication in Westchester County, N.Y., attacking Evelyn N. Farkas, a former Obama administration official who was running for Congress.

In recent weeks, the F.B.I. questioned Mr. Averko about the Strategic Culture Foundation and its ties to Russia.

While those attacks did not have a decisive effect on the election, they showed Moscow’s continuing efforts to influence votes in the United States, Dr. Farkas said Wednesday in an interview.

She criticized the State Department for failing to explain how the Strategic Culture Foundation had tried to intervene in the current election, arguing the report missed an opportunity to “wake people up.”

“The State Department should not be releasing information that is so sanitized that it fails to convey the enormity of the situation,” Dr. Farkas said. “The whole point of writing a report like this is to put the American people on alert.”

Intelligence officials in recent days have briefed members of Congress about election threats from Russia and other countries. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, and other lawmakers have called on the administration to declassify and release to the public information about those threats.

“The fact that they are issuing this report about what the Russians are doing around the globe but not in the United States shows all the more how information relative to our own security should be declassified,” Mr. Blumenthal said in an interview on Wednesday. “The classified briefings have been absolutely chilling and frankly terrifying in the magnitude of foreign threat to our election security that we face. It really is a break-the-glass moment.”

The State Department report tries to gauge the reach of the pro-Russia propaganda sites. Global Research is by far the most popular. According to the report, it has accumulated 12.4 million page views, drawing an average of 351,247 people per article. Other sites, like News Front and SouthFront, have nine million and 4.3 million readers each. The Strategic Culture Foundation has far less substantial internet traffic, having drawn only about 990,000 visitors.

The Russian Embassy in Washington said the State Department report was an effort to stop proposals to resume security cooperation with Russia.

“The U.S. State Department is not very fond of the existence of alternative sources of information,” said Nikolay Lakhonin, the embassy press secretary. “Serious resources are employed to discredit them. Any voice that contradicts Washington is dubbed ‘disinformation’ in the service of the ‘Kremlin’ and Russian intelligence.”

Global Research, according to the report, is a “home-grown Canadian website” that nonetheless has become enmeshed in Moscow’s propaganda ecosystem. The report talks about how the founder of the site, Michel Chossudovsky, was a former contributor to RT, Moscow’s state-sponsored international broadcaster, and sits on the board of other pro-Russian conspiracy sites.

Global Research has previously denied that it is part of a pro-Russian network of websites, but did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The State Department report also highlights how the websites have spread disinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic, most notably the false story that the novel coronavirus was created in an American military lab.

One false story by Global Research claiming that the coronavirus pandemic was not real was then spread by 70 other sites and publications, Ms. Gabrielle said.

“Senior Russian officials and pro-Russian media sought to capitalize on the fear and confusion surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic by actively promulgating conspiracy theories,” the report said.





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