US rightwing figures in step with Kremlin over Ukraine disinformation, experts say

<span>Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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False and conspiratorial narratives pushed by some American conservative politicians and media figures about Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine have bolstered and created synergies with the Kremlin’s legendary disinformation machine, experts on information manipulation say.

But even though Russia has embraced and promoted American disinformation, as well as the Kremlin’s own much larger stock of Ukraine war falsehoods, both brands have been widely debunked by experts and most media outlets, underscoring Moscow’s setbacks in the information war.

Led by Tucker Carlson at Fox News, a few Republican rightwingers in Congress, and some conservative activists, a spate of comments that have disparaged Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and echoed other Russian war disinformation have been recycled by Moscow, say experts.

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A feedback loop between the Kremlin and parts of the American right has been palpable since the war’s start in February, which Moscow falsely labeled as a “special military operation” aimed at stopping “genocide” of Russians in Ukraine and “denazification” – two patently bogus charges that drew widespread international criticism.

Still, the influential figure of Carlson has pushed several false narratives to millions of Fox News viewers that have been eagerly embraced and recycled by Moscow and parts of the American right. Last month, for example, Carlson touted rightwing conspiracies that attempted to link Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, to a discredited allegation that the US financed bioweapons labs in Ukraine.

On a separate front, two Republican congressional conservatives, Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene, delighted Moscow last month by condemning Zelenskiy without evidence in conspiracy-ridden terms that sparked some bipartisan criticism. Cawthorn called Zelenskiy a “thug” and his government “incredibly corrupt”, while Greene similarly charged that Zelenskiy was “corrupt”.

Further, the former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, last month attempted to soften and spin Putin’s onerous crackdown on independent media in Russia, where reporters and other citizens now can face prison terms of 15 years for not toeing the Kremlin’s Orwellian war line and for spreading what Moscow deems “fake” news about its Ukraine invasion. Gabbard made the wild claim that “what we’re seeing happening here [in America] is not so different from what we’re seeing happening in Russia”.

More recently, Russian state TV lauded Gabbard as “our friend Tulsi”, when it introduced a Carlson interview with her in which Gabbard accused Biden of “lying” about his true motives in Ukraine after Biden said in Warsaw that Putin “cannot remain in power”, which the White House quickly clarified was not a call for regime change.

Disinformation specialists say that the phoney narratives by the US right and the Kremlin during the war have displayed some new twists that have increased the flow of conspiracy-heavy news, but also spurred more criticism from experts for being patently false.

“We often see a two-way flow of conspiratorial narratives moving from the rightwing American information ecosystem to the Kremlin and back again, in a way that creates a feedback loop that reinforces and bolsters messaging from both groups,” said Bret Schafer, who leads the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s information manipulation team.

We often see a flow of narratives from the rightwing US information ecosystem to the Kremlin and back

Bret Schafer

Schafer noted the feedback loop seems “best evidenced by the recent effort to connect Hunter Biden to a US-led bioweapons program in Ukraine, where one can clearly see the merging of a favored domestic narrative into a foreign disinformation campaign that makes it feel more familiar, and therefore more plausible, to certain target audiences”.

Schafer added that “influential American pundits and conspiracy theorists first pushed the narrative, only to then have it amplified and legitimized at the highest levels of the Russian government”.

Some members of Congress likewise see a crossover effect between elements of the American right and Moscow.

“Putin and his oligarchs are well aware of the dark channels of influence in rightwing American politics today, and they exploit them whenever they can – just as corporations and rightwing billionaires do here at home,” the Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse told the Guardian.

“There’s also a clear affinity for Putinesque strongmen in some corners of the Republican party, which begins with Trump. All this points to the need for more transparency to help the American people understand who’s influencing their politics and why,” Whitehouse added.

But despite the Kremlin’s track record for creating vast amounts of misleading disinformation, and its current efforts at spreading new conspiracies, some former US officials say Moscow has largely failed in its attempts to distort facts as it wages a brutal war.

“I think they’ve utterly failed internationally with their disinformation efforts,” former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told the Guardian. “I think they’ve failed in Ukraine, too. Russia has lost the information war.”

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Herbst stressed that Zelenskiy’s “excellent” messaging skills have been an important antidote to the Kremlin’s latest disinformation war, coupled with heavy western media coverage inside Ukraine of Russia’s well-documented attacks on civilians, medical facilities and brutal war tactics that are being investigated by the international criminal court and others as possible war crimes.

“That’s one reason Putin has resorted to draconian steps against the remaining spaces of free media,” added Herbst.

Moscow is highly unlikely to give up promoting more false narratives to confuse and rally Russian and American war supporters, as Putin demonstrated in late March with a bizarre riff about “cancel culture” targeting Russian artists to punish the Kremlin for its war against Ukraine and pressure Russian cultural figures to denounce it.

Putin likened these efforts to attacks on author JK Rowling for her views on transgender issues, which spurred the author to quip that “critiques of western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics”.

Schafer said that “criticism of cancel culture, big tech censorship and the mainstream media have long been staples of Russian propaganda targeting audiences on the American political right and the fringes of the ‘anti-imperialist’ political left,” and stressed that these themes have “proven to be wildly successful at attracting American audiences in the past”.

Schafer noted, however, that “there is significant irony in media outlets and pundits funded by a government that has systematically destroyed freedom of speech and freedom of the press for 140 million Russian citizens decrying censorship in the west. But that irony is either lost, or ignored, by external audiences attracted to the message.”

More broadly, Herbst emphasized that Putin’s supporters among some Trump Republican loyalists and “Trump-minded media” have often “pursued themes that indicate ignorance of Ukraine and insufficient understanding of the dangers that Putin’s aggressive foreign policy poses to vital American interests”.

Judging the impact of the feedback loop between Moscow and parts of the American right is “always exceptionally challenging”, Schafer said. But “if the same narratives are being repeated by influential political figures and pundits on the most-watched news networks in Russia and the United States, those narratives are reaching a significant audience”.

He added: “Given that many within those audiences have been primed to dismiss and distrust the ‘mainstream’ media and expertise writ large, there’s no amount of factchecking and objective reporting that is likely to change attitudes once certain falsehoods become adopted as facts.”