Guess Who Fell For a Russian Propaganda Campaign

Illustration for article titled Guess Who Fell For a Russian Propaganda Campaign
Image: Samuel Corum/Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool (Getty Images)

When a video of protesters in Portland burning a Bible began making the rounds on social media earlier this month, it was quickly seized upon by conservative dummies as proof of, well, something.

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“This is who they are,” Senator Ted Cruz droned. “Now we move to the book burning phase,” Don Jr. wrote.

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But as it turns out—while the Bible burning was real, if less dramatic and much more peripheral to the protest than Cruz and Don Jr. painted it as being, its amplification was part of a Russian campaign to do exactly what it ended up doing—rile up some manufactured outrage.

More, via the New York Times:

The truth was far more mundane. 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.

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According to the New York Times, the video was put out by the government-sponsored outlet RT’s video arm, known as Ruptly. And while the Bible burning did happen, it was “far from the main action of the protest,” and it was edited to not include video of some protesters from the relatively new group Moms United for Black Lives attempting to put out the fire. Again, via the New York Times:

Apart from the Ruptly videographer, only one other journalist — a local television reporter — heard about the Bible burning, and noted it with a single sentence in a lengthy report on that night’s protests. The story, by KOIN, the local CBS News affiliate, also reported that a group of women calling themselves Moms United for Black Lives Matter attempted to put out the fire — a detail not included in the Ruptly video, which was edited to string together a number of clips from the night. (A New York Times reporter had observed a truck offering free Bibles at the protests earlier that night, though it was not clear whether it provided the book that was burned.)

Ruptly instead made the Bible burning a focus of its protest coverage that night. The news agency tweeted the video twice on Aug. 1 — here and here — and featured it on its website. In the tweets and text that accompany the video on the agency’s website, the Bible burning is presented as the night’s central event; the flag burning is secondary. RT, the network that runs Ruptly, also wrote an entire story about the Bible burning.

Ruptly and RT then let Twitter take it from there.

As the New York Times put it, “The Portland video represents the Russian disinformation strategy at its most successful. Take a small but potentially inflammatory incident, blow it out of proportion and let others on the political fringes in the United States or Canada or Europe spread it.”

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Congrats to Don Jr. and Ted Cruz for falling for some Russian propaganda and continuing to be as dumb as rocks!

Senior reporter, Jezebel

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