Earlier this month, prominent conservatives including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted misleading claims and footage attempting to depict Portland protesters as having burned a "stack of Bibles."
But that narrative had been set in motion by a Russian-backed media outlet called Ruptly, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
After Ruptly aired the misleadingly edited footage of the protesters, a right-wing commentator tweeted the footage and claims further mischaracterizing it. Then several conservative politicians and news outlets amplified that tweet.
The incident reveals Russia's evolving and increasingly nuanced misinformation tactics, which rely on real people spreading stories with elements of truth, not just fake news.
Several high-profile conservatives including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas shared Russian misinformation earlier this month, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
In Portland, Oregon, protests against police brutality have continued for more than 70 consecutive days. The protests have been largely peaceful, but protesters have also on some occasions lit bonfires.
In one of those instances, at a protest on August 1, a few protesters used a Bible and an American flag to start a fire, which others eventually put out, according to The Times.
Local media outlets reported that the protests had been peaceful throughout the day and that the fire was started only at the end of the night as a dwindling crowd of a few dozen to 100 people spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement. Only one report mentioned a Bible being involved at all.
But Ruptly, the video arm of the Russian state-backed media outlet Russia Today that has livestreamed the protests and published highlight clips nightly, focused its summary video that night on the burning of what appeared to be a single Bible, The Times reported. It tweeted the video twice, both times noting the Bible being set on fire.
A Twitter user with just a few followers also tweeted the video shortly before deleting their account — but not before Ian Miles Cheong, a right-wing agitator, retweeted them, adding his own false claim that the protesters burned "a stack of Bibles."
—Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) August 1, 2020
Cheong's tweet was shared widely, sparking coverage from prominent and conservative media outlets and blogs including the New York Post, The Federalist, Gateway Pundit, and The Blaze, as well as retweets from Trump Jr. and Cruz.
—Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) August 1, 2020
—Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) August 1, 2020
The success of Ruptly's misleading coverage of the Portland protest reveals how Russia's misinformation tactics have evolved since the 2016 presidential election, where American intelligence agencies have repeatedly concluded that Russia interfered with the aim of hurting Hillary Clinton's candidacy.
In 2016, Russia relied heavily on fake Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other social-media accounts to artificially amplify fake news stories created by the Internet Research Agency, its in-house troll farm.
But Russia is deploying new, more sophisticated tactics this time around, and the Portland protest story shows how it has learned to leverage hot-button issues likely to resonate with highly partisan or ideological groups to sow dissent.
Cybersecurity experts have found Russia exploiting the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions in the US, and US intelligence agencies have warned that Russia is attempting to sway the election toward President Donald Trump again in 2020. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the assessments of US intelligence agencies, giving deference to fringe agitators who support him.
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