It should come as no surprise that internet-savvy Russians meddling in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign have learned to manipulate genuine news stories to suit their ends.
And a report Tuesday by the New York Times offers compelling proof of the Kremlin’s purpose.
Late last month in Portland, a video emerged showing someone among the nightly Black Lives Matter protesters burning a Bible, possibly two, in order to start a larger fire. Later an American flag is thrown into the flames.
It was an ugly incident, but a small one.
“None of the other protesters seemed to notice or care,” the Times says.
But that fleeting moment in a chaotic scene grew into something far bigger: “one of the first viral Russian disinformation hits of the 2020 presidential campaign.”
The single Bible became a whole stack of them, more video was added to make the activity appear to be central to the protests and Kremlin-financed English-language news outlets distributed the images widely.
“For some of President Trump’s loudest cheerleaders, it was a story too good to check out” because it was “a near-perfect fit for a central Trump campaign talking point — that with liberals and Democrats comes godless disorder,” the Times says.
Some of the stories spread by the Russian news outlets are simply made up, the Times says.
“But the most useful ones — the ones most likely to go viral — are those with a kernel of truth, like the tale of Bible burnings in Portland. It offers a case study in how the Russian information-laundering operation works, and how potent a weapon it can be.”
In a tweet, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said of the protesters, “This is who they are.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, tweeted that antifa had moved to “the book burning phase.”
Once the video and an accompanying article was out, the Times says, the Russians “let Twitter take it from there.”
It turned out the key tweet was by a Malaysian, Ian Miles Cheong, who has gained a large Twitter following “by playing a right-wing American raconteur on social media.”
Cheong’s tweet, “wildly exaggerating” what the original video showed, is accompanied by his own breathless commentary saying protesters “brought a stack” of Bibles to burn has been retweeted more than 26,000 times — including by Cruz and by Trump Jr.
It’s all part of the Kremlin’s effort to keep Donald Trump in the White House, according to U.S. intelligence officials who say Russia uses “a range of techniques to denigrate Democrats” and Joe Biden, the Times says.