At the beginning of August, in the midst of ongoing protests against racism and police brutality in Portland, Oregon, a video clip surfaced that depicted Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters setting fire to a Bible and then a U.S. flag.
Twitter reactionaries ate it up. It was a perfect encapsulation of everything they suspected must be true about left-wing ideology: that it was violent, that it was fascistic, that it was little more than a thin veneer of social-justice rhetoric concealing bone-deep hatred for Christianity and American values.
Consider the broadly representative words of Ian Miles Cheong, who tweeted:
I don’t know what burning the Bible has to do with protesting against police brutality.
Do not be under the illusion that these protests and riots are anything but an attempt to dismantle all of Western Civilization and upend centuries of tradition and freedom of religion.
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) August 1, 2020
Indeed, a team of Russian propagandists couldn’t have come up with a better story to focus right-wing rage.
Now, reporters Matthew Rosenberg and Julian E. Barnes of the New York Times did some digging and found out that’s exactly what happened:
A few protesters among the many thousands appear to have burned a single Bible — and possibly a second — for kindling to start a bigger fire. None of the other protesters seemed to notice or care.
Yet in the rush to paint all the protesters as Bible-burning zealots, few of the politicians or commentators who weighed in on the incident took the time to look into the story’s veracity, or to figure out that it had originated with a Kremlin-backed video news agency. And now, days later, the Portland Bible burnings appear to be one of the first viral Russian disinformation hits of the 2020 presidential campaign.
The video’s origins aren’t difficult to trace. In fact, the video is watermarked with the name of the news agency that released it: Ruptly, an outlet launched several years ago by the state-controlled English-language news network Russia Today (rebranded a decade ago as “RT”). YouTube even places a disclaimer underneath every Ruptly video noting that the outlet is funded by the Russian government. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan is reportedly closely linked to Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials, and even the outlet’s own journalists acknowledge their role as “a propaganda tool for the Russian government.”
Those who support the video’s narrative haven’t been keen to apply the first rule of critical thinking when it comes to media: consider the source.
Rather, they want to cast BLM protesters — and left-leaning folks more generally — as comic-book villains who irrationally stand against all they hold dear, with no more principled or reasoned objection than a toddler throwing a tantrum.
That’s what Rosenberg and Barnes noticed when they examined how Russian propaganda tactics have evolved since the 2016 election:
Moscow, [American officials] say, has shifted away from the fake social media accounts and bots used by the Internet Research Agency and other groups to amplify false articles ahead of the 2016 vote. Instead, the Russians are relying increasingly on English-language news sites to push out incendiary stories that can be picked up and spread by Americans, many of whom have proved as eager as foreign powers to stoke partisan divisions inside the United States.
The Russian technique is a kind of information laundering, akin to money laundering. Stories originate with Russian-backed news sites, some of them directly connected to Moscow’s spy agencies, officials and experts said. They are then picked up by Americans on social media or in domestic news outlets, and their origins quickly become obscured. Often, by the time a story reaches most of its American audience, there is little to indicate that it was created to fuel grievances and deepen political divisions.
Secular leftists need not feel too smug: there are Russian media outlets spreading propaganda designed to appeal to what Rosenberg and Barnes describe as “alt-left” ideologues, too. People of all political stripes need to be cautious and think critically about their news media — especially when it seems to confirm what they already believe.
That’s particularly true when it comes to issues of race. Earlier this year — well before the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests prompted a national conversation about the possibilities for a racial reckoning in America — Barnes co-authored an article about Russian intelligence tactics to destabilize America’s racial fault lines in 2020, hoping to increase white supremacist rhetoric and incite violence against racial minorities.
Other hot-button issues ripe for exploitation include immigration, gun control, and LGBTQ rights, according to research into online political communication.
Rosenberg and Barnes have done a thorough job tracing Russia’s history of destabilizing propaganda, both within and beyond America, as far back as the Cold War. The practice has become even more impactful, though, with the advent of the Internet. Fewer fact-checkers stand between disinformation and the public, and not everyone has the time, ability, or inclination to vet every claim they come across.
But the weakest link here is not the public; it’s the ideologues who turned the incident into an anti-leftist talking point: people like Cheong, Donald Trump, Jr., Sen. Ted Cruz, and others who oversold the significance of one incident, during a protest of more than two months’ duration, when a small cluster of people exercised their right to protest by burning no more than two copies of an easily-accessible religious text and mass-produced flags.
All the propagandists had to do was edit together the video and wait for the right wing to do the wrong thing.