Wednesday, March 23, 2022

How Russia and Right-Wing Americans Converged on War in Ukraine (VIDEO)

Following-up from yesterday, "Putin's Challenge to the American Right (VIDEO)."

At NYT, "Some conservatives have echoed the Kremlin’s misleading claims about the war and vice versa, giving each other’s assertions a sheen of credibility":

After President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia claimed that action against Ukraine was taken in self-defense, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the conservative commentator Candace Owens repeated the assertion. When Mr. Putin insisted he was trying to “denazify” Ukraine, Joe Oltmann, a far-right podcaster, and Lara Logan, another right-wing commentator, mirrored the idea.

The echoing went the other way, too. Some far-right American news sites, like Infowars, stoked a longtime, unfounded Russian claim that the United States funded biological weapons labs in Ukraine. Russian officials seized on the chatter, with the Kremlin contending it had documentation of bioweapons programs that justified its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

As war has raged, the Kremlin’s talking points and some right-wing discourse in the United States — fueled by those on the far right — have coalesced. On social media, podcasts and television, falsehoods about the invasion of Ukraine have flowed both ways, with Americans amplifying lies from Russians and the Kremlin spreading fabrications that festered in American forums online.

By reinforcing and feeding each other’s messaging, some right-wing Americans have given credibility to Russia’s assertions and vice versa. Together, they have created an alternate reality, recasting the Western bloc of allies as provokers, blunderers and liars, which has bolstered Mr. Putin.

The war initially threw some conservatives — who had insisted no invasion would happen — for a loop. Many criticized Mr. Putin and Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Some have since gone on to urge more support for Ukraine.

But in recent days, several far-right commentators have again gravitated to narratives favorable to Mr. Putin’s cause. The main one has been the bioweapons conspiracy theory, which has provided a way to talk about the war while focusing criticism on President Biden and the U.S. government instead of Mr. Putin and the Kremlin.

“People are asking if the far right in the U.S. is influencing Russia or if Russia is influencing the far right, but the truth is they are influencing each other,” said Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies Russian information warfare. “They are pushing the same narratives.”

Their intersecting comments could have far-reaching implications, potentially exacerbating polarization in the United States and influencing the midterm elections in November. They could also create a wedge among the right, with those who are pro-Russia at odds with the Republicans who have become vocal champions for the United States to ramp up its military response in Ukraine.

“The question is how much the far-right figures are going to impact the broader media discussion, or push their party,” said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington nonprofit. “It serves them, and Russia, to muddy the waters and confuse Americans.”

Many of their misleading war narratives, which are sometimes indirect and contradictory, have reached millions. While Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms limited the reach of Russian state media online after the war began, a variety of far-right Telegram channels, blogs and podcasts took up the task of spreading the Kremlin’s claims. Inside Russia, state media has in turn reflected what some far-right Americans have said.

Mentions of bioweapons labs related to war in Ukraine, for example, have more than doubled — to more than 1,000 a day — since early March on both Russian- and English-language social media, cable TV, and print and online outlets, according to the media tracking company Zignal Labs.

The unsubstantiated idea began trending in English-language media late last month, according to Zignal’s analysis. Interest faded by early March as images of injured Ukrainians and bombed cities spread across the internet.