Briefs

How lies travel from Russia to Estonia, via the United States

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An Estonian nationalist news site that uses pro-Kremlin, U.S.-based English-language sources to cover current political developments in the United States demonstrates how new digital media can shape public opinion irrespective of reliability. This also points up the need for online tools to help readers distinguish between fact and fiction.

The website Objektiiv.ee, owned by the nationalist Estonian Foundation for Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK), extensively covers U.S. current events such as the November 2016 presidential elections, as well as investigations into hacking and wiretapping. It relies primarily on “alternative” U.S. sources, including the pro-Kremlin and conspiratorial websites ZeroHedge.com and Trunews.com.

In recent months, these sources have provided Estonian readers dozens of articles containing false news — articles that have become part of Estonia’s public discourse.

Objektiiv.ee, launched in 2015, is a part of an Estonian nationalist movement that began to surge in popularity the year before. In the country’s 2015 general elections, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) secured 8.1 percent of the votes and seven seats in the Estonian parliament. Two years later, the party’s share of the votes had grown to 14 percent. Even though there is no legal or financial connection between EKRE and Objektiiv.ee, both are aligned with the same nationalist community. The two form an ideological-informational symbiosis where Objektiiv.ee offers EKRE a channel to promote its views (in fact, the vast majority of politicians given space on Objektiiv.ee are EKRE members). EKRE, in turn, uses Objektiiv.ee to validate its viewpoints. Since Objektiiv.ee is one of the very few nationalist websites in Estonia, many Estonian nationalist readers—including parliamentarians and decision-makers—live in a media sphere shaped by false facts and conspiracy theories produced by ZeroHedge.com.

An English-language financial blog, ZeroHedge.com is described by CNN as conspiratorial, anti-establishment and pessimistic. Its material is written by a group of editors who collectively write under the pseudonym “Tyler Durden”—a character from the novel and film Fight Club. In its early days as “Wall Street’s renegade blog,” Zerohedge.com was intentionally secretive about the identity of its content creators. Lack of real-world contact information, such as the names of those responsible for its content, a street address or a phone number, added to its mystique. That was before the backstory of this site became known. Today, the lack of identifying information puts it in the same category as a sign that the website may "provide fake news,” as Edward Lucas, Senior Vice President at CEPA noted.

A 26 November 2016 report by the propaganda-exposing website PropOrNot claims ZeroHedge.com is part of Russia’s propaganda network. More recently, ZeroHedge’s opinions tend to align nearly perfectly with themes and tropes used by Russia’s official propaganda outlets. In fact, the flow of disinformation between ZeroHedge.com and sites identified as disinformation by EU’s East StratCom Task Force team is noticeable.

In 2014, University of Houston finance professor Craig Pirrong investigated how ZeroHedge.com echoed a deeply misleading story on an obscure Russian-language website, Iskra News. Pirrong concluded that ZeroHedge.com is a key link in the network that transmits stories from Russia to Western news consumers. A story appears in an obscure publication, typically outside the United States or Europe; it is then picked up by another, more widely read site in Europe or the West (ZeroHedge.com is the 407th most popular site in the United States). These days, getting published on a site like ZeroHedge.com, which is then linked by numerous other sources and tweeted widely, can ensure that the false information goes viral.

In April 2016, former ZeroHedge.com employee Colin Lokey described the news production process there. He was writing as many as 15 posts a day of up to 1,500 words each, pushing a specific editorial line: “Russia=good, Obama=idiot. Bashar al-Assad=benevolent leader, John Kerry=dunce. Vladimir Putin=greatest leader in the history of statecraft.” That process isn’t much different from that of Russian troll farms churning out hundreds of ideologically targeted false news items every day.

As part of the Russian propaganda ecosystem, Intentional or not, ZeroHedge.com is an example of how narrative laundering works. It is a symbiotic cooperation between Russian and Western outlets in which the Western partner gets traffic and clicks—which generate revenue—while Russia gets a channel to spread its narratives in the U.S. and a “safe” Western channel to spread its worldview. RT, Sputnik and Russia Insider have also used ZeroHedge.com in this manner. In the case of Objektiiv.ee using information provided by ZeroHedge, Kremlin propaganda narratives and false news reached not only the United States, but also Estonian nationalist news channels. Outlets that would probably never trust explicitly pro-Kremlin media channels consider U.S. news sites to be safe to use.

How can this be prevented from happening? Questionable news pages should be marked clearly as not trustworthy. People have a right to choose their information channels, but they also have right to know what they choose. It would be difficult to forbid Estonian or U.S. websites from publishing propaganda and false news, but it is relatively easy to warn people that such sources are questionable.

Photo: TASS/Alexander Ryumin