A growing contingent of left wing political pundits have utilized edgy and anti-establishment platforms to promote the stances of far-right dictatorships Russia and Iran.
On October 19th, in the aftermath of former Defense Secretary Colin Powell’s death, Rage Against the Machine frontman Tom Morello shared a series of graphics to his 1.5 million Instagram followers listing alleged war crimes committed by Powell. This in itself is not news, plenty of columns have been written about Powell’s controversial legacy. What makes Morello’s post different is a large watermark in the corner of each graphic labelled “Redfish,” which represents the organization who first made the graphics. This was a nice bit of publicity for Redfish, an independent media outlet with 400 thousand followers. It also happens to be controlled by the Russian government. In recent years, Russia has built a faux-grassroots media ecosystem designed to draw in left-wing youth and ultimately disenfranchise them. This loose network has grown to include internet bot farms, propaganda news outlets, and even prominent American commentators. A growing contingent of left wing political pundits have utilized edgy and anti-establishment platforms to promote the stances of far-right dictatorships Russia and Iran.
Today, Russia and their close ally Iran operate what is effectively a singular media sphere to promote their interests abroad. This coordination is evident both behind the scenes and publicly. The countries operate a committee to promote cooperation between both countries’ media apparatuses. The committee works on goals like co-producing content, jointly countering “western narratives,” and journalist exchanges. The effects of this arrangement can be seen in : Russian and Iranian media figures appearing on each other’s networks, and both sides of the sphere promoting the same people, such as Russian and Iranian state media promoting podcaster Ryan Knight. The amount of individual media outlets contained in this sphere is vast, forming an ecosystem of propaganda with unclear origins. The Russians use overtly or covertly state-owned companies like RT, Soapbox, and Redfish Media to spread their propaganda. Soapbox and Redfish especially serve as content-farm catnip for unsuspecting millennials and zoomers. Meanwhile, Iran’s contributions are more opaque. They control Press TV, along with dozens of other media sources. However, where grey lines begin to appear is on media controlled or affiliated with Iranian proxies.
Jimmy Dore, former co-host of the popular progressive media outlet, The Young Turks, has increasingly harbored connections with Russian disinformation and conspiracy campaigns. After the botched Iowa caucuses last primary season, the hashtag, #RobbyMookCaucusApp started spreading across twitter circles affiliated with the left or right. The hashtag campaign promulgated a conspiracy theory that a former Clinton campaign manager developed a mobile app to rig the primary elections against Bernie Sanders. Evidence has since shown that the campaign was pushed by Russian bots as well as Jimmy Dore and other influencers. It should be no surprise that a connection exists between Dore and Russia, as he was one of the most prominent critics of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion. Dore was platformed by Russian state television to air those grievances. One of Dore’s most recent ventures was serving on the board of advisors for the left-wing third party the People’s Party, which has itself been advertised by RT. More interestingly, Dore guest-hosted a week of segments on RT, with one dedicated to defending Maria Butina, a former American University graduate student who was discovered and convicted in the US as a Russian intelligence operative.
Dore also spends ample time platforming far-right extremists including many with ties to Russia. He recently hosted Magnus Panvidya, a leader of the fascist group known as the Boogaloo Boys. RT inexplicably reported on this podcast and offered a positive spin that directly supported the Boogaloo movement. The article presented the Boogaloo Boys as a “libertarian/green party militia” who have supposedly provided security at BLM protests. Dore has also received financial support from Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Allies of the dictator organized an NGO called The Syria Solidarity Movement, which granted funding for individuals to attend a state-sponsored event hosted by Bashar al-Assad. This meeting was attended by a number of leftist media figures. The Syria Solidarity Movement also gives out an annual journalism prize called The Serena Shim Award. Dore was a recipient of the Serena Shim Award in 2017, receiving $2,500 as prize money. That same year he would go on to deny an Assad-ordered chemical weapons strike on an opposition-held town.
Dore is far from only the leftist influencer to traffic in conspiracy. Editors of the popular fringe news site The Grayzone, Max Blumenthal, Aaron Maté, and Benjamin Norton have continued to push the dangerous false flag theories of chemical attacks in Syria. Originally pro-rebel in Syria, Blumental and Norton seemed to change their opinions on the topic after attending a Russian fundraiser hosted by the Kremlin in 2017. Since then, Blumenthal has continuously appeared on RT and Sputnik.
The Grayzone team’s authoritarian apologist scheme extends beyond Assad and continues to get help from Russian media. Blumenthal became prominent for touring a rich Venezuelan neighborhood to deny that citizens were trying to flee the country in the brutal Maduro regime in 2019. More recently, the Grayzone has come under fire for spouting dangerous genocide denialism regarding the ethnic cleansing of the Uighur muslims in China. The editors claim that the United States government has lied about the human rights abuses of the Uighurs to discredit China. According to Axios, Blumenthal has “continued to appear on Chinese state broadcaster CGTN and the Chinese tabloid Global Times.” The Grayzone has since been cited by the Chinese Embassy, and China’s spokesperson for the minister of foreign affairs. The Grayzone’s crossover support fits into wider actions by the Russian and Chinese governments. China is increasingly adopting Russia's disinformation strategies, including the funding of conspiracy websites.
Not content with solely conspiracy platforms, actors in the Russian media sphere have been making increasing efforts to gain access to mainstream media. One of their most prominent “journalists” is Rania Khalek. Khalek is a budding TikTok star, consistently appearing in videos for the Russian-backed content farm Soapbox. She also hosts their podcast, which Jimmy Dore made an appearance on. Khalek has written extensively for the Grayzone, and traveled with Max Blumenthal on a regime-sponsored trip to Syria hosted by The Syria Solidarity Movement. Unsurprisingly, both Blumenthal and Khalek are recipients of the Serena Shim Award. Khalek is openly an employee of Russian-owned media companies, and yet her byline appears in numerous mainstream progressive publications, including VICE, The Nation, Common Dreams, and The Intercept. The Nation and The Intercept in particular have proven themselves especially vulnerable to propaganda campaigns. A recent tweet from The Nation’s editorial director said that reports of Russian interference in our elections were false, and cited the work of the Grayzone’s Aaron Maté and The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald. The Intercept reached new prominence during the 2020 Democratic primaries by relentlessly promoting Tara Reade’s disproven claims against presumptive nominee Joe Biden. Reade now hosts a podcast for RT, Russia’s state TV station. Khalek serves as a warning of the complex web of interactions that serve as the backbone of the Russian-Iranian media sphere. While she herself is a direct employee of the Putin regime, many of the news outlets, pundits, and journalists who platform her are not. Additionally, the growing vulnerability of mainstream outlets to propagandists should be concerning.
On the other side of the media sphere is Ryan Knight. He is a prominent podcaster with over 350 thousand twitter followers and is most likely not an employee of state media. However, he serves a vital role in the space as a source of content and a laundering mechanism. Originally a progressive Democrat, Ryan Knight and his podcast guests have increasingly taken pro-Russian and pro-Iranian views on global issues. His most recent episode hosted Misty Winston, a pro-Assange activist. Winston and a probably-insane friend host their own podcast. One of their recent guests was Vanessa Beehly, an officer in the Syria Solidarity Movement and likely a Russian asset. Both Knight and Winston worked with Jimmy Dore on the People’s Party. Knight recently appeared on Iran's Press TV to claim that the United States has no “true” leftist movements. It's impossible to determine whether or not Ryan Knight is a willing vehicle for foreign disinformation, but his past scams and rapidly evolving political identity point to a character willing to spread propaganda to make a quick dollar.
Tools to combat disinformation need to be more widespread. As disinformation spreads over social media, young people are especially vulnerable to propaganda. As part of their research for this column, the writers of this article have developed POD, the Propaganda Outlet Database. POD serves as a tool to cross check if a person or organization has appeared on websites owned by or linked to the Russian, Iranian, and Chinese governments. This allows anyone to check if their favorite pundits or organizations may be supporting disinformation campaigns, or are being cited by propaganda. Many young people unknowingly retweet or post content pushed out by Russian sources to sow mistrust and conspiracy among activist spaces to further polarize the nation. Students at American University are no exception. Many students follow or have liked posts made by state-run media outlets. Conversations on media literacy and information-sharing need to take place among activists and organizers to decrease the rates at which disinformation is consumed and republished.
Alex Moskovitz is a freshman C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. Jack DiPrimio is a first-year Political Science major at the School of Public Affairs. They are both staff writers for the Agora.
Image Credits: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office