Amid an investigation into Russian meddling in the last U.S. presidential election, a Russian propaganda Twitter network aimed at American audiences consistently spreads links to Breitbart and other right-wing or conspiracy theory websites that boost President Trump and bash Democrats.
The websites — which include True Pundit, the Gateway Pundit and Imperialist U — are regular features on the list of “Top Domains” pushed by a network of 600 Twitter accounts followed by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which tracks a Russian disinformation and propaganda campaign focused on U.S. voters.
On Thursday, the most popular domains mentioned by the network in the previous 48 hours, according to the tracker, included True Pundit, the Russian government-controlled television network RT, the Gateway Pundit, Fox News, Russian government news agency Sputnik News and Breitbart.
The network’s main role is to amplify messages deemed to benefit the Kremlin, but that doesn’t mean the websites’ authors share the same goals, said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which created the monitoring project for the fund.
“Just being shared by Kremlin information operations does not mean they are part of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations,” Rosenberger said. “It just means something on these sites, or a lot of things on these sites, is either advancing a message the Kremlin is trying to push or that it is trying to discredit.”
Alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign is the focus of an investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
The Gateway Pundit’s founder Jim Hoft called the project a “far-left smear site” of the Marshall Fund, a nonprofit group that promotes transatlantic cooperation.
“It’s complete rubbish. … The (fund) website’s real purpose is to smear websites supportive of Donald Trump and his accomplishments as Russian propaganda,” Hoft said in an email. “Of course, we have no connection to the Russians nor have we ever had any contact with any Russian officials.”
Hoft did not deny that the Russians amplify his message, but asserted that the Russian government-controlled television network RT tends to cover more anti-American far-left stories and personalities than those about conservative Trump supporters.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s advisory council includes “several #NeverTrumpers and far left hacks,” Hoft said. He listed President George W. Bush’s director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff; Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and former senior official in the George H.W. Bush administration; Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA; former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Mike McFaul; Hillary Clinton’s senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan, and President Obama’s chief technology officer Nicole Wong.
Others on the panel include the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers of Michigan; Adm. Jim Stavridis, former commander of the U.S. European Command, and David Kramer, a senior fellow in the human rights and diplomacy program at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
The websites carried a range of stories Wednesday that reflect themes promoted by the Russian network. Some examples:
Breitbart: Run by Trump’s recently departed chief strategist Steve Bannon, it carried a story by the Associated Press about a “snub” of Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry after a cut in U.S. aid to Egypt over that country’s ties with North Korea. Kushner, who is spearheading efforts to revive Mideast peace talks, later met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi but the AP story had not been updated on the Breitbart site.
The Gateway Pundit: It ran stories with the headlines, “Alt-Left Protesters Show up to Phoenix Rally Armed with AR-15’s and Bullet Proof Vests,” and “Former Russian Amb Kislyak Slaps CNN in Ambush Interview: ‘You Should Be Ashamed.’”
True Pundit: It carried a video with the headline, “‘A total eclipse of the facts’: Don Lemon Calls Trump ‘Unhinged’ In Wild Rant After Arizona Rally.”
Thomas Paine, managing editor at True Pundit, did not deny playing a part in the Russian network’s information operation, but implied that mainstream media do the same.
“We are flattered to be accused of participating in disinformation campaigns for government because as a start-up that’s the exact time-tested model we have been emulating from the New York Times, Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets,” Paine wrote in an email.
Anti-Imperialist U: A blogger who goes by the name Hugo Turner wrote on Sunday that neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists who participated in the Aug. 12 fracas in Charlottesville, Va., were among “hundreds of well-armed, highly trained fascist groups and militias, many interlocking with the military, police, FBI and the CIA.” Turner also called the popular revolt in Ukraine that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 a “fascist coup” launched by the United States. Turner calls himself a novelist on Twitter, but is not listed by Amazon as publishing any books.
James Carden, executive editor for the American Committee for East West Accord, which promotes better relations between the U.S. and Russia, assailed the Marshall Fund’s Twitter tracker an “assault on public discourse.”
In an op-ed in The Nation, he said the fund, founded in 1972 by German Chancellor Willy Brandt to memorialize the U.S.-financed Marshall Plan that helped rebuild his nation after World War II, was “embracing the Russia panic that dominates the current discourse in Washington.”
“It is a legitimate thing” to look at how the Russians try to influence American political discourse, Carden said in an interview. But Russian sites on the tracker also report on legitimate stories, he said.
“It seems that anything critical of the United States is now all of a sudden Russian propaganda,” he said. “That’s a slippery slope.”