WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials on Tuesday accused a conservative financial news site with a large U.S. readership of amplifying Kremlin propaganda and alleged that five outlets targeting Ukrainians followed instructions from Russian spies.
Officials said Zero Hedge, which has 1.2 million Twitter followers, published articles created by Moscow-controlled media outlets that were later shared by news outlets and people unaware of their connection to intelligence services. Russians. Officials did not say whether they believed Zero Hedge knew of links to spy agencies and did not allege direct links between the website and Russia.
Zero Hedge denied the claims and said it tries to “publish a wide range of viewpoints that cover both sides of any given story.” In a response posted online Tuesday morning, the website said it “has never worked, collaborated or cooperated with Russia, and there are no links to any spy agencies.”
It is unclear whether the US efforts are changing Putin’s behavior. And without releasing more evidence of its findings, Washington was criticized and recalled past intelligence failures such as debunked claims that pre-war Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Zero Hedge has strongly criticized Biden and published articles about his son Hunter’s allegations of wrongdoing. Although perhaps best known for its coverage of markets and finance, the website also covers politics with a conservative bent.
In its online response, the website accused the AP of publishing a “bizarre hit story” and said government officials were trying to distract from “our view of the current dismal economic situation. in the USA”.
“The bottom line is that such blockbuster accusations that we are somehow working with or for the Kremlin are nothing new: we have repeatedly come across similar allegations over the years. years, and we can absolutely confirm that all of them are ‘mistakes,'” the website said. noted.
In recent months, Zero Hedge has published numerous articles accusing the United States of fomenting panic over Ukraine, which now faces the possibility of an invasion by more than 130,000 Russian troops massed on several sides of the country. Some of these articles are listed as having been written by people affiliated with the Strategic Culture Foundation.
Recent articles listed as authored by the foundation and published by Zero Hedge include the headlines: ‘NATO sliding into war with Russia in Ukraine’, ‘Americans need a conspiracy theory they can all talk about. ‘Hear’ and ‘Theatre of the Absurd… Pentagon Demands Russia Explains Troops on Russian Soil.’
In an email sent ahead of its online response, the website said that “there is no relationship between the Strategic Cultural Foundation (or SVR) and Zero Hedge, and furthermore, this is the first time we hear someone say the Foundation is tied to Russian propaganda.”
“They are among our hundreds of contributors – unlike mainstream media, we try to publish a wide range of viewpoints that cover both sides of any given story,” the website said.
Disinformation has long been used by Putin against adversaries, including the United States, and as a tool in regional conflicts to accompany cyberattacks and the movement of military forces. Washington and Kiev have for months highlighted the issue of Russian influence in Ukrainian media.
Intelligence officials on Monday named two websites they said were run by the Strategic Culture Foundation. Three other websites are said to have links to the FSB, Russia’s federal security service. The websites did not respond to email requests for comment on Tuesday.
“These sites allow the Russian government to gain the support of the Russian and Ukrainian populations,” an official said. “This is the main vehicle for how the Russian government will build national support for an invasion of Ukraine.”
Officials described for the first time what they say were direct communications between Russian spies and media editors or managers. They have not released the recordings of the communications.
FSB officers had ordered Konstantin Knyrik, the head of NewsFront, to write articles specifically damaging to Ukraine’s image, US officials said. They said Knyrik was praised by senior FSB officers for his work and asked for derogatory information he could use against the Caucasian Knot, a website that covers news in the Caucasus, where Russia also maintains. conflicts with smaller neighbors.
PolitNavigator’s editor sent reports of published articles to the FSB, an official said. And the editor of Antifashist is said to have been instructed at least once by the FSB to remove material from the site.
The Strategic Culture Foundation is accused of controlling the Odna Rodyna and Fondsk sites. The director of the foundation, Vladimir Maximenko, has met with SVR managers several times since 2014, officials said.
Several of the sites have few social media followings and may not seem influential at first glance, noted Bret Schafer, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Securing Democracy Alliance. But lies or propaganda stories often start small before being amplified by bigger players, he said.
“You see the narrative going into the information space, and it’s very hard to see where it goes from there,” he said.
A manifesto published on the Zero Hedge site defends its use of anonymous authors and proclaims that its goal is to “liberate oppressed knowledge”. Many articles are published under the name of Tyler Durden, also a character from the movie “Fight Club”.
The website was an early amplifier of conspiracy theories and misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. An Associated Press investigation determined that the site played a pivotal role in advancing the unproven theory that China engineered the virus as a bioweapon. He has also published articles touting natural immunity to COVID-19 and unproven treatments.
Zero Hedge was also cited in a recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue which examined how far-right extremists are exploiting misinformation about COVID-19 to expand their reach. Twitter briefly suspended Zero Hedge’s account in 2020 but reinstated it a few months later, saying it “erred in our enforcement action in this matter.”
The US decision to name the website could inform some people who discover its content online, Schafer said.
“I guess most people who are loyal to Zero Hedge are naturally inclined to be suspicious of the US government anyway,” he said, “and so this announcement is probably not going to undermine most of the support. base of Zero Hedge”.
Associated Press reporters Angela Charlton in Paris and David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.