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After a week of Russian propaganda, I was questioning everything

One day this past fall on my morning commute from D.C. to Virginia, I tuned the radio to 105.5 FM, expecting to hear my usual bluegrass. But instead of fiddles and guitar, I heard a voice in Russian-accented English announce: “This is Radio Sputnik.”

I had no idea then what Radio Sputnik was. What came to mind was Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which triggered the Space Race between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War. The beach-ball sized satellite, once launched, didn’t do much besides orbit the Earth beeping, but it played on American fears and anxieties about being technologically behind, serving as powerful Soviet propaganda.

Enter Radio Sputnik. Like its sister outlet RT, Sputnik is a Russian government-funded media outlet, widely seen by Russia experts as a vehicle to disseminate disinformation for the Kremlin, and, like its space-dwelling namesake, to make the West look bad. While RT is television, Sputnik lives on the radio, a wire service and website. Both RT and Sputnik are under the banner of the news agency “Rossiya Segodnya,” which means “Russia Today,” and which was created in December 2013 by presidential decree by Vladimir Putin.

Both outlets, according to Ben Nimmo, an information defense fellow with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, put out propaganda intended to polarize and confuse, and “attack the facts rather than report them.”

For a recent example, see Sputnik’s coverage since the April 7 chemical attack in Douma, Syria. While Western powers say Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government forces were behind the attack, Sputnik has pushed a narrative that the attack was faked, orchestrated by the humanitarian search-and-rescue group the White Helmets. According to Sputnik, the White Helmets, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, is a Western-funded construct, and had turned an ordinary instance of dust and smoke inhalation into a chemical attack. Sputnik’s main source for this coverage was a 9/11 truther.

(Snopes, the fact-checking site, said that images being used to discredit the White Helmets are stills from a movie set. According to the Washington Post, statements by medics saying that children in Douma suffered from asthma attacks instead of a chemical attack may have been coerced.)

“The whole point is to make you doubt, to induce paralysis,” Nimmo said. When compared to the better-known RT, he said, Sputnik is “much more regressive and much more pernicious.”

Today, Sputnik operates in 34 countries in more than 30 languages, including, as of this past summer, on an FM station (and now an AM) in Washington, D.C. When Sputnik launched stateside, the investigations into Russia’s supposed interference in the U.S. election were accelerating, and the media outlet was greeted with critical coverage. The Washington Post editorial board accused Russia of “weaponizing information.”

By fall, the FBI was investigating claims from Sputnik’s former White House reporter, Andrew Feinberg, that he was fired for not asking the White House questions about a Fox News story that said Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich leaked information to Wikileaks before he was killed. The story was roundly debunked. (The FBI declined to comment to the NewsHour on Sputnik, and Sputnik said Feinberg was fired for performance-related issues.) In February, Sputnik’s U.S. provider was forced to register as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice.

And yet, through all the criticism, Sputnik has quietly continued to put out the same information — or disinformation — as it had before. Because its provider is now a foreign agent, Sputnik is now required to disclose that it is funded by the Russian government. But while it does this on air, I never saw such a disclosure online. And so Sputnik stories like the one alleging that the chemical attack in Syria was a fake can easily spread, until they appear on the lips of a congressional candidate, are published on mainstream sites like Britain’s The Independent, and get covered by major outlets, including CBS and Newsweek.

Sputnik, for its part, claims that it is “telling the untold” stories the Western and mainstream media ignores.

To better understand the organization, I put myself on a weeklong Radio Sputnik-only diet. I also spent a day in its newsroom, speaking with employees, including one who was fired soon after he began speaking with me. What I found was a stranger picture than I anticipated, one in which I began to understand how persuasive disinformation could be.

Sputnik's Washington D.C. office. Photo by Elizabeth Flock

Sputnik’s Washington D.C. office. Photo by Elizabeth Flock

Inside Radio Sputnik

Over the last month, questioning the chemical attack in Douma dominated the news at Sputnik. But when I visited the Sputnik offices, in early April, the story in question was the poisoning of the Skripals, an ex-Russian spy and his daughter who had been exposed to a nerve agent, which the Western world said was the work of the Kremlin.

Before my visit, I called Andrew Feinberg, the fired Sputnik White House reporter, to ask about some of the claims he’d made in a Politico story about his former employer. In the piece, he’d said his editor asked him to question the White House about “alternate versions” to who was behind the sarin gas attack of April 2017. He also said he was asked in his hiring interview what he would do if asked to write something untrue. (That editor later told me the first allegation was true, the second false.) When I told Feinberg, who is now working as a reporter for a trade publication, that I was going to visit Sputnik, he laughed bitterly and asked: “Do you have a flask?”

Once inside Sputnik’s K Street studio, I sat in on the taping of the main morning show, “Fault Lines,” which is something like a mix of the old TV series “Crossfire” and the conspiracy theory site Infowars. The show is hosted by Lee Stranahan, the former Breitbart reporter who the New York Times said had upended an Idaho town with his exaggerated reporting on a juvenile sex crime, and Garland Nixon, a self-professed Bernie Sanders supporter, former cop and board member of the ACLU. (Stranahan told me he stands by his Idaho reporting.) They pride themselves on coming from two different sides of the aisle, though over a month of listening to them, I rarely heard them disagree.

After the show ended, Nixon and Stranahan sidebarred with each other about the Skripals: how the father and daughter had recently woken up after the attack, how that wasn’t possible after a nerve agent poisoning, and how that must mean the West was lying about what really happened. Questioning the West’s Skripal narrative had been the focus of an earlier part of their show that morning, before they put on actor Danny Glover to talk about his activism, and a Howard University professor and political scientist to talk about demonstrations over housing issues at the university.

It is this mix of legitimate news — often including topics undercovered by the mainstream media — along with conspiracy theories and disinformation that makes propaganda so effective, said Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist who spent years working for Russian channels and specializes in studying Russian propaganda. He wrote a book about the experience called “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” and is today a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics. “It’s about embedding yourself as much as possible in social media communities,” Pomerantsev said. “And then it can spread the story it wants to spread, whether it’s about Ukraine or the White Helmets.”

Or about the Skripals. Online, Sputnik raised a number of different theories about how the poisoning “actually happened.” Some of these theories were also raised to me while in the newsroom, especially the idea that if the Skripals really had been exposed to a nerve agent, they never would have woken up. This was argued to me so persuasively that I found myself Googling it in the bathroom.

While at Sputnik’s offices, I also sat down with Mindia Gavasheli, a Russian national who runs Sputnik’s D.C. newsroom. He told me he began his career as a TV correspondent at age 18, before RT hired him as a producer. Later, he was tapped to oversee Sputnik’s U.S. project.

When asked about claims of propaganda, Gavasheli defended the media outlet as putting out a necessary, alternate point of view.

“I probably wouldn’t hire someone who is saying the same thing as the mainstream media. Because ‘Russia is a terrible place’ is a mainstream thing,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with reflecting the interests … of the Russia side too.”

Gavasheli denied to me that Feinberg was ever told to ask the White House about Seth Rich. He said that in fact he’d banned his newsroom from covering the Seth Rich story, because he realized from the get-go that it seemed fishy. When presented with a conspiratorial Seth Rich story that still lived on Sputnik’s site, Gavasheli said “op-eds” like that piece were written from Moscow, and that his team didn’t write or edit them.

He said the same for an article on Sputnik’s site that pushed a fake story about German chancellor Angela Merkel taking a selfie with a Brussels bomber. The man was actually a Syrian refugee.

A story Sputnik posted April 14, 2018 casting doubt on the chemical attack in Douma, Syria.

A story Sputnik posted April 14, 2018 casting doubt on the chemical attack in Douma, Syria.

Gavasheli and other Sputnik journalists pointed me instead to their work on undercovered issues: examining police violence in the U.S., the idea of single-payer health care, and how issues with the U.S. voting system disproportionately affect poorer areas. They defended story after story that critiqued, mocked, or proffered unproven theories about the West, especially on foreign policy, as more than well-deserved. Russia watchers have a word for this: “whataboutism,” meaning efforts to discredit the West in general instead of refuting individual arguments. Sputnik calls it telling the untold.

‘Between two angry elephants’

When I sat down with Lee Stranahan, the former Breitbart reporter, who calls himself a “political futurist,” he shrugged off the idea that Sputnik was Russian propaganda by employing some whataboutism of his own.

“When you work for Sputnik, you get called a traitor and a Putin puppet … But why does no one bring up the coup we fomented?” he said, referring to Russian allegations that the U.S. fomented a coup in Ukraine.

Stranahan also argued that Russia — and Russian media — is being unfairly vilified by the U.S. He brought up the July 2016 hacking of Democratic National Committee emails, which were released by Wikileaks and claimed by a persona called Guccifer 2.0. U.S. intelligence blamed the leaks on Russia, and the Daily Beast reported that Guccifer was a Russian intelligence officer. But Stranahan said that narrative didn’t add up, and to prove it, showed me what he said were Twitter direct messages between himself and Guccifer.

If Guccifer was Russian, he said, “What you wouldn’t need to do is create a fake persona, do a Twitter page, do a WordPress page, which is infamously prone to hacking.”

“Russia has turned into a fake adversary,” he said. “I’m 100 percent happy to be working here.”

In general, the Sputnik newsroom is full of journalists with politics outside the mainstream. Sputnik has hired journalists of Stranahan’s right-wing, and sometimes conspiratorial, persuasion, as well as a number of journalists on the far left. One of Sputnik’s main shows, “By Any Means Necessary,” is hosted by Eugene Puryear, a former Green party candidate for Washington D.C.’s City Council.

On Sputnik’s newswire side, a female American journalist told me that after working in the Middle East for years, she began to see how reporters from different countries could approach the same story differently, such as the Palestinian conflict. “There are objective facts but what context do you tell those in?” she said. “We provide a different context or background.”

She defended Sputnik, which she joined after moving back to the states. But she said working there had become more difficult as the Russia investigations progressed, and since Sputnik’s U.S. provider had to register as a foreign agent.

“We’re getting squeezed,” she said. “There’s a saying in Persian, ‘Don’t get between two elephants. We’re between two angry elephants.’”

Before I left Sputnik’s offices, another of its wire reporters, John Stanton, who covered the Pentagon, handed me a written note. It was innocuous — the note asked me to pass along a hello to someone at the NewsHour he knew — but after I left he emailed me to say more.

“I’d exercise caution in relying on the credibility of what you hear/read from Sputnik,” he wrote. “Just to give you a sense of the climate here,” he said, he was accused by Sputnik’s director of communications after I left of “passing along information.”

Five days later, Stanton was fired.

“I’m relieved,” he told me over the phone after he was let go. “It was taking years off my life.”

‘Pushing a wet noodle’

When we met in person after his firing, Stanton said he initially took the job at Sputnik because of his interest in Russia and because he needed the paycheck. Before Sputnik, he had worked for years as a freelance journalist, writing for a number of fringe national security websites. He said he only started believing that Sputnik was a propaganda site after about a month of working there.

He stayed at Sputnik for nearly two years, during which time he kept notes on his assignments and observations. He told me he kept these notes as “insider research” for a client he did not want to publicly name. He insisted he did not take the job at Sputnik for that reason.

While there, Stanton said he wrote many legitimate stories about Department of Defense contracts and U.S. troop movements. He also said he got the opportunity to interview senior-level sources at the Pentagon, which he hadn’t gotten to do before. Once the Russia investigations heated up, though, that all dried up, he said.

But Stanton said he increasingly saw evidence of Sputnik’s efforts at disinformation. He showed me emails in which an editor asked him to look into a story, put out by the Syrian foreign ministry, that said the U.S. and UK had supplied “chemical warfare agents” to terrorists in Syria. The chemical warfare agents were actually tear gas, and there was no evidence of how it had made its way there. “They wanted to build that up to more than it ever was,” he said. According to the emails, Stanton pushed back and the editor backed down.

Stanton also said there was stock language added to any story he wrote about Crimea, such as text that said more than 95 percent of Crimean voters supported the move to rejoin Russia in a 2014 referendum. Many countries question the legitimacy of those results. And Stanton said stories that reflected negatively on Putin, or positive LGBTQ stories, were a “no-go,” meaning pitches he sent on those topics were not approved.

Sputnik did not respond to request for comment about these claims, and said it did not comment on personnel matters.

“They mix real with unreal, use dubious sources,” Stanton said. But trying to pin down what he really found problematic, he said, “was like pushing a wet noodle.” What he meant is that proving disinformation can be impossibly slippery.

‘If you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him’

The roots of the word “disinformation,” defined as false or misleading information intended to deceive, go back to the Russian word, “dezinformatsiya,” which in the 1920s was the title of an entire department of the precursor of the KGB. The head of that unit, Colonel Rolf Wagenbreth, is quoted as having said: “Our friends in Moscow call it ‘dezinformatsiya.’ Our enemies in America call it ‘active measures,’ and I, dear friends, call it ‘my favorite pastime.’”

The Soviet Union’s disinformation strategy relied in part on media manipulation, including via radio, though also on covert operations, even assassinations, according to a CIA history of the time. Some of the country’s most famed disinformation campaigns included planting stories that said Western politicians had supported the Nazis, that the U.S. supported apartheid and that the U.S. had created HIV/AIDS as a bioweapon (more on that later). Some of these fake stories persist today, such as that fluoride was a government plot to control the mind, and that the CIA assassinated JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Both are favorites on the site Infowars.)

For years, the U.S. ignored or did not know how to respond to Soviet disinformation campaigns. By the 1980s, though, the U.S. was using Russia’s brand of disinformation effectively, such as to undercut Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. At the same time, American media outlets willingly put on television people like Vladimir Posner, a silky smooth apologist for the worst of Soviet foreign policy. He showed up again and again on shows like “Nightline” and “The Phil Donahue Show.”

Russia excelled at disinformation during the Cold War, and it has continued to under Putin, who has cracked down on the country’s independent media and harnessed technology to make the Russian perspective available around the world. Dmitry Kiselyov, perhaps Russia’s best-known propagandist, has famously said that: “If you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him.” And Vladislav Surkov, a Russian businessman in Putin’s inner circle, is known for having applied his background in avant-garde theater to Russian politics, to create the feeling that no one knows quite what is real, including during the 2014 annexation of Crimea. It has been argued that the popularity of Putin itself is largely a media creation.

According to Pomerantsev, the British journalist who worked for Russian channels, and now studies propaganda at the London School of Economics, Russia’s information warfare strategy today combines learnings from psychological warfare, dirty PR, and brainwashing from cults. TV and radio have long served as two important disinformation mediums. As the efforts of Russian bots during the U.S. presidential campaign demonstrated, the internet has only made all of that easier.

Working at Sputnik

Days after Stanton was fired, and after we met, he published a long document of his observations of working at Sputnik on Cryptome, an online publication that’s been the source of major leaks and controversy (such as in revealing the supposed identity of the CIA analyst who tracked down Osama bin Laden).

“I did so because I wanted a relatively safe place on the [World Wide Web] to store the document in case my home computers get nailed,” Stanton told me in an email of his decision to publish on Cryptome.

The document begins with Stanton’s musings on how governments today can control and exploit free flows of information online, and ends with the admission that he had been performing insider research on his employer since soon after he arrived. He implied that he felt it was his duty. “Even as the United States of America continues to find its way forward,” he wrote, “it remains — and will remain — the greatest country on the planet.”

Initially Sputnik would not answer questions about Stanton’s firing. But then Beverly Hunt, Sputnik’s director of communications, called me to make sure I had seen Stanton’s document on Cryptome. She followed up by sending me a screengrab of the final page, with the line about “insider research” circled — evidence of his betrayal.

How Radio Sputnik made me doubt the truth

As one last attempt to better understand Sputnik, I put myself on a weeklong Sputnik media diet. As best I could, I consumed news only from its website, radio station and social media platforms.

According to Russia watchers like Pomerantsev, Sputnik dominates the news in countries with weaker independent media. In Serbia, for example, Pomerantsev said Sputnik is influential in part because the local news is so low quality, and international media like the BBC doesn’t exist. “So it’s almost seen as your go-to newswire there,” he said. “In our kind of Western markets, Sputnik is pretty trashy. But in other countries, it’s taken seriously.”

And in other countries Sputnik’s coverage has had meaningful impacts on the political process, such as on the German election last September, which Pomerantsev and several other scholars examined for a study for the London School of Economics. The study showed that Sputnik’s coverage during the election leaned heavily toward the right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which ultimately did well in the polls.

“Radio Sputnik [Germany] heavily criticized [Angela] Merkel and repeated anti-migration themes throughout the campaign, including a public poll that showed that ‘lands with more migration are more prone to terrorism,’” the study wrote. “The channel also provided a platform for AfD party quotations such as, ‘rape is increasing due to Merkel’s policy.’”

Ben Nimmo, the Atlantic Council information defense fellow, said that kind of coverage fit with the “broad pattern of Kremlin operations [of disinformation]: to polarize people.”

“To have an alleged news network which is fanning the prejudices of the far right and the far left and playing to those two bases and appealing to them by attacking the center — that’s entirely in character,” Nimmo said.

Coverage on Sputnik’s English language site and D.C. radio program seemed intended to polarize, but also, as Nimmo had described, to distract and confuse.

Day 1 of the diet was April 10, the first of two days Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent testifying before Congress about Facebook’s role in sharing user data that may have helped Donald Trump win the presidency. While I saw later that his testimony had dominated headlines, there was no mention of it on Sputnik’s site for most of the day. Instead, Sputnik led with a story about Google’s supposed search manipulation, claiming it had favored Hillary Clinton in the election.

Meanwhile, on the radio, Nixon and Stranahan were busy talking about the Skripals, saying that the British government was not happy the Skripals had woken up after being poisoned. Stranahan called the Skripal poisoning a “false flag” attack by Western government — false flag being a favored conspiracy theory term for a secret operation intended to deceive. Over the next few days, I counted more than a dozen uses of the phrase “false flag” on the outlet. The phrase often served to morph factual news stories into a murky morass.

On Day 2, I turned on breaking news alerts on my phone from Sputnik. I was alerted that the U.S. was “using ‘fabrications and lies’ as excuse to target Syria,” in a story that relied on Syria’s own state news agency. I was also told that “soil examination in Douma didn’t show any poisonous substances,” according to the Russian ministry of defense, even though the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons hadn’t released its findings yet. When I visited Sputnik’s Instagram page, I found mostly dog photos, workout life hacks and a positive video of Putin for International Women’s Day.

Day 3, I turned on 105.5 FM on my way to work, and Nixon and Stranahan were starting to cast their doubts on the validity of the chemical weapons attack in Syria. They recalled the Nayirah testimony of 1990, in which the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter gave false testimony of human rights abuses by Iraqi soldiers to bolster support for the Persian Gulf War.

I broke my media diet then to look up the Nayirah testimony. I briefly entertained the possibility that the West could have distorted what happened in Douma to build support for a U.S. strike there. I even found myself researching more theories about what happened to the Skripals. It didn’t matter that later I would see how the facts had been twisted. It was in moments like these, listening to Sputnik, that I could see how you’d begin to believe that everything was possible.

The great irony

The ultimate goal of media outlets like RT and Sputnik, Russia experts told me, was to get one of their stories to spread widely and gain acceptance, first to a site like Breitbart, then Fox, and even to the mouth of the president, or to a mainstream media outlet like the Washington Post. Or, more efficiently, to move directly to a member of the president’s staff, as in a false Sputnik story about a NATO base terror attack in August 2016, which was quoted by Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort.

Thomas Rid, a political scientist who studies information in conflict, said that it’s easier today than ever for Sputnik to accomplish that kind of “conveyor belt” of disinformation.

“I think it’s important to see it in historical continuity,” Rid said. “Putin himself is familiar with these measures in the Cold War. But back then, in the mid ‘80s, when disinformation in the Cold War was at its peak, it was really hard to place a story in the American mainstream.”

Rid cited the major KGB disinformation campaign of the time: “Operation INFEKTION,” which was the conspiracy theory that HIV/AIDS was a U.S.-made bioweapon to kill Africans. After Russia started the rumor, it slowly but eventually made its way into American media coverage. In today’s era of so-called “fake news” and distrust of the mainstream media, propaganda spreads much faster, Rid said.

Last week, Sputnik’s homepage was pushing an interview with a young Syrian boy and his father from Douma who said there was no chemical attack — that it was all a set-up. According to the Intercept, that interview was recorded not in Douma, but at a Syrian army facility with Russian military advisors present. But efforts to debunk the interview were too late, as the boy’s interview already appeared in the pages of Metro UK, and its video on Sputnik has since racked up more than 30,000 views on YouTube. This week, Sputnik is alleging that Western journalists “poisoned” witnesses in Douma.

“It’s not that Russian disinformation has changed fundamentally. It’s that we have changed fundamentally,” Rid said. “Today we as a society are practically asking for these disinformation operations.”

Years ago, Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak coined the term “hypernormalization” to talk about how the Soviets were such masters of propaganda and disinformation that eventually it became impossible for its own people to see beyond it. The U.S. is a more open society whose First Amendment allows its citizens to question and call out false narratives. The great irony is that the First Amendment also allows Sputnik to say what it wants, even to spread confusion and distrust. And it’s working.

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