Video of Portland 'Bible burning' seized on by Trump allies alleged to be Russian disinformation scam

American intelligence officials claim Russia using news sites to spread disinformation

Graig Graziosi
Tuesday 11 August 2020 22:08 BST
Trump says he did not discuss reports of Russia paying Taliban to kill US troops in phone call with Putin last week

A viral video of protesters burning a Bible in Portland may have been amplified as part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

In the video, a pair of protesters appear to throw a Bible onto a fire. Though other protesters in the area do not seem to react to the event, the video, captured and shared by Russia Today owned video outlet Ruptly, became a sensation among right-wing media pundits and politicians as evidence that the protesters are godless book-burners.

The video was pushed by Ruptly several nights and became a leading story on Russian-government owned news site Russia Today.

While it was true that a pair of protesters burned at least one Bible, the story was misconstrued to depict the scene as a mass group of protesters burning a stack of Bibles.

One Twitter user, Ian Michael Cheong - who is Malaysian but portrays himself as a right-wing American political pundit - retweeted the video with the caption "Left-wing activists bring a stack of Bibles to burn in front of the federal courthouse in Portland."

The video does not show the location of the fire, does not include more than two protesters, does not show a stack of Bibles, and does not indicate the political ideologies of the people burning the Bible.

The protesters near the fire only react when an American flag is tossed onto the fire, after which they cheered.

According to local news reports on the protest, another group of protesters tried to extinguish the fire, but that scene was not included in the Ruptly video nor was it mentioned in the Russia Today story.

Mr Cheong regularly shares videos from the Portland protest and is not complicit in any targeted production or dissemination of the video apart from his retweeting.

"It definitely wasn't my intention to drive just the one story," Mr Cheong told The New York Times.

Mr Cheong's tweet was retweeted by Republican lawmakers like Senator Ted Cruz who said "This is who they are," painting the whole of the protesters with a broad brush.

The president's son, Donald Trump Jr, also retweeted the video.

"Now we move to the book burning phase. I'm pretty sure ANTIFA doesn't actually stand for what they say it stands for. Maybe just remove the anti part of them [sic] name and it's perfect," he wrote

There is no evidence the protesters who burned the Bible have any connection to Antifa or share any political ideologies associated with anti-fascist movements.

The New York Times reported that American intelligence officials have briefed lawmakers on both covert and overt Russian disinformation tactics, which now allegedly are focused on using US or English-language news sites to push stories out to right-wing and left-wing news consumers that are likely to entice division and anger.

Long before the George Floyd protests erupted, American intelligence officials had apparently warned lawmakers that Russia would likely attempt to stoke racial divisions in the country in an effort to cause chaos ahead of the 2020 US election.

It's important to note that unnamed American intelligence officials - often used as sources by The New York Times and other national media outlets - were also named as sources that drove the misinformation that helped sell the Iraq War to the American public.

The officials say that the Ruptly video is indicative of Russia's latest strategy for stirring dissent among the American public.

Unlike 2016, in which Russian intelligence was accused of using Twitter bots and fake social media accounts to push conspiracy theories and disinformation, intelligence officials claim the nation's new strategy is to take singular, largely isolated events like the Bible burning in Portland and inflate their significance.

From there, the stories are pushed out to left-wing and right-wing news sites - some of which regularly peddle conspiracy theories - to be amplified and used as kindling for the fire of America's widening political divisions.

"Russian intelligence has grown more sophisticated and more highly resourced in their use of online disinformation," Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said.

His claims were based on a US State Department report examining Russian disinformation campaigns targeting the US.

"The methods used in 2016, seem almost rudimentary and quaint," he said.

Websites like Inforos, which American intelligence officials claim is operated by Russian military intelligence, have perpetuated coronavirus conspiracy theories and disinformation as well as stories meant to undermine American's trust in NATO.

Other websites, like InfoBrics, have direct ties to the KGB successor intelligence agency GRU. The site helped spread the narrative that Ukraine's former president, Petro Poroshenko, was behind the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine. Investigators later learned that Russian missiles were what destroyed the airliner.

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