A video shot in Portland during a protest for the Black Lives Matter cause on August 1 has gone viral in the Republican clan. We see at least a bible and an American flag burning. For the New York Times, it represents one of Russia’s first successful attempts to influence the November election. Behind the images hide risky strategies from Russian sites, sometimes directly linked to the Kremlin.
Without Twitter, the event would have gone unnoticed. Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas, and Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son, retweeted the images. The New York Times fact-checking shows the mechanism that brought it to the forefront of the news. It all started with an account followed by a few dozen people with the location of Oklahoma City (United States) and Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates). According to the New York newspaper, he is the first to relay the video. Just before it is deleted, another account, much more influential because it is much more followed, retweets the information. Ian Miles Cheong, 216,400 subscribers and 304,200 tweets on the counter, comments on the event: “Left-wing activists burn pile of Bibles in Portland Federal Court.”
The machine is started. His comments are commented on and retweeted 26,300 times. They are shared in the Republican community on the social network and used by pro Trump media analysts. For them, no doubt, the left is at the origin of this fire. Protestants have shown their true face: radicals who go so far as to destroy Bibles and burn the sacrosanct American flag.
According to the New York Times, the reality would be different. What does the video show? One or two Bibles and an American flag are used to fuel the fire. Some demonstrators are in a circle, but we do not know their political affiliation. For the daily, Ian Miles Cheong (intentionally or not) exaggerated reality.
This does not yet explain the role that Russia could play in this event. To be exact, there are two videos: a live of the demonstration broadcast on Youtube and a digest of the night centered around the burning Bibles. The live stream lasts more than four hours and the summary is limited to 1 min 30. The media behind the two videos is called Ruptly, the press agency of Russia Today, the state-funded news channel Russian. The images relayed by the Republicans as “proof of the true nature of the demonstrators” are of Russian origin. Has Ruptly shared false information? No, the scene did take place during the Portland protest on August 1. Several American journalists mentioned the scene in their accounts of the night. On the other hand, the Russian media took care to select the part which interests it. According to the American intelligence services, this kind of content has a well-defined objective: “to accentuate racial tensions before the election”. Some content is purposely designed to attract a Republican audience.
A well-oiled mechanism
“The mechanism behind this Russian strategy is simple, explains Tanguy Struye, professor of political science at UCLouvain. Russian sites target conspirators on social networks. They will share or retweet the content. By successfully targeting the right ones people, the message is gaining momentum. It is picked up by some media. ” Some people will be more responsive than others. “Part of it will be critical of the message. The information disseminated by these sites reinforces cognitive bias,” continues Tanguy Struye. If we already believe that the Democrats are dangerous people, anti-religion, and that the page consulted goes in this direction, we will be strengthened in our certainties. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. The professor cites two media in particular: Sputnik and Russia Today. The second is precisely the one who broadcast the Portland video. “All the newspapers have an ideological angle, but they are pure propaganda”, he denounces. The particularity in this case is that the information is not false, the site has selected what it wanted to show. “This is typical of the conspiracy theory: taking a word, a sentence or a situation out of context,” points out Tanguy Struye.
Belgium is not spared
This strategy is not new. It had already been used during the American presidential campaign of 2016. It also works in Europe. “In Belgium, we are also subjected to this kind of techniques. Several conspiracy theories on Covid-19 come from Russia. In times of crisis, mistakes are made. Instead of seeing them as such, they are turned into stories conspirators. Unfortunately, we are completely helpless in the face of this phenomenon. This chain of disinformation weakens democracy “, regrets Tanguy Struye.