[Marxism] How a Canadian website is being used to amplify the Kremlin's view of the world (Globe & Mail)

Richard Fidler rfidler at ncf.ca
Sat Nov 18 12:00:05 MST 2017


Canada's top English-language daily takes a look at Global Research 
Subscriber only so here's the full text.

How a Canadian website is being used to amplify the Kremlin’s view of the world

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition)18 Nov 2017
CAMPBELL CLARK MONTREAL 
MARK MacKINNON RIGA

An obscure Canadian website that disseminates conspiracy theories and
Kremlin-friendly points of view is an amplifier of global disinformation,
according to NATO

In an upscale condo in Old Montreal owned by a retired University of Ottawa
professor sits the headquarters of a website that is now in NATO’s sights, with
the military alliance investigating, among other things, the online spread of
pro-Russia propaganda and of disinformation that props up the regime of
President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The website, globalresearch.ca, is ostensibly the online arm of the Centre for
Research on Globalization, which has the trappings of a think tank and styles
some of its regular contributors as “senior fellows.” But it is the media that
matters: Its online content and its amplification on social media form the core
of its activities.

The site has posted more than 40,000 of its own pieces since it was launched in
2001, according to one long-time contributor. But it does more: It picks up
reports from other, often obscure websites, thus giving them a Global Research
link. Those reports often get cross-posted on a series of other sites or
aggressively spread across Facebook and Twitter by followers who actively share
or retweet them, including a number of social botnets, or bots – automated
accounts programmed to spread certain globalresearch.ca content.

The site has disseminated articles that claimed the Assad regime was not behind
the April chemical weapon attack that drew a punitive U.S. missile strike, also
suggesting it was a hoax and that the deadly nerve agent sarin was not used. It
spread other false reports, such as a claim that NATO was preparing to deploy
3,600 tanks near the Russian border as part of a mission to Eastern Europe.

The site initially drew attention for claiming that the Sept. 11 attacks in the
United States were a false-flag operation orchestrated by the CIA.
But what once appeared to be a relatively harmless online refuge for conspiracy
theorists is now seen by NATO’s information warfare specialists as a link in a
concerted effort to undermine the credibility of mainstream Western media – as
well as the North American and European public’s trust in government and public
institutions.

The spread of online disinformation had become a heated political concern amid
U.S. intelligence reports that Russia sought to use it to influence the 2016
U.S. presidential election. In May, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia
Freeland warned that such tactics could be used here. On Monday, British Prime
Minister Theresa May accused Russia of seeking to “weaponize information.” In
October, Facebook released a sampling of political ads bought by Russians that
were aimed at U.S. audiences – many were not about candidates but sought to gin
up divisions, including ads that supported and attacked the anti-racism movement
Black Lives Matter.

Global Research is viewed by NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of
Excellence – or StratCom – as playing a key accelerant role in helping
popularize articles with lit- tle basis in fact that also happen to fit the
narratives being pushed by the Kremlin, in particular, and the Assad regime.
At its headquarters in Riga, StratCom researchers consider globalresearch.ca to
be a link in a network that reposts such stories. “That way, they increase the
Google ranking of the story and create the illusion of multisource
verification,” said Donara Barojan, who does digital forensic research for the
centre. But she said she did not yet have proof that Global Research is
connected to any government.

The site’s founder, Michel Chossudovsky, has long been an iconoclast, a leftist
University of Ottawa economics professor who challenges mainstream capitalist
economics. Locally, he gained brief notoriety when his theories of Israeli
cabals sparked allegations of anti-Semitism. His site, globalresearch.ca, tends
to view the United States as a militaristic aggressor and NATO as its
warmongering tool – views also promoted by Russia. It also asserts the United
States is behind extremists such as the Islamic State and its allies, a view
promoted by the Assad regime.
So is globalresearch.ca just an outlet for views that happen to align with those
of the Kremlin and Damascus? Or is it affiliated?

Mr. Chossudovsky didn’t want to discuss that. He has spoken occasionally to
reporters over the years to expound his political theories, but when The Globe
and Mail went to his waterfront home in L’Île- Cadieux, Que., in May, he
declined to speak about how globalresearch.ca functions and whether it is
aligned with Moscow or any other government.

“Not on that topic,” he said, insisting “it would not be appropriate,” without
explaining further. He then said he had an appointment and had to go.

This week, after The Globe made another attempt to ask questions about the
website, Mr. Chossudovsky responded through a lawyer, Daniel Lévesque. In a
letter, Mr. Lévesque said the Centre for Research on Globalization denies that
it is part of a network of proRussia or pro-Assad sites or that it is
“affiliated with governmental organizations or benefits from their support.”

Global Research has from the beginning espoused conspiracy theories, including
that the United States and its allies continue to support and fund Islamist
extremists, including al-Qaeda and IS, and has taken the view that the U.S.-led
NATO alliance is fomenting war around the world. But it took on those themes
long before it was common to accuse Mr. Putin of mounting a disinformation war.

Global Research has developed unusual reach for a site that specializes in
conspiracy-heavy anti-Western articles on international relations.
It uses that reach to push not only its own opinion pieces, but “news” reports
from little-known websites that regularly carry dubious or false information. At
times, the site’s regular variety of international-affairs stories is replaced
with a flurry of items that bolster dubious reportage with a series of opinion
pieces, promoted on social media and retweeted and shared by active bots.

The Global Research site is prolific, and of course the editors don’t
necessarily agree with all the content that is posted.

In the case of the April 4 sarin-gas attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of
Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 people – and which sparked U.S.
President Donald Trump to order a cruise-missile strike on the Syrian air base
from which the attack was launched – globalresearch.ca was among the first to
carry a story that claimed the Syrian regime was innocent of the attack and that
terrorists hoping to lure the United States into the war against Mr. al-Assad
were to blame.

The article first appeared in alMasdar News, a pro-Assad website that appears to
be run from Beirut. It was written by Paul Antonopoulos, who now writes for the
pro-Russia Fort Russ news portal. But after globalresearch.ca republished the
same article word for word, it rippled out widely through the internet. Global
Research’s Facebook counter shows it was shared more than 6,000 times. On
Twitter, it was mentioned hundreds of times. The article’s assertions were soon
quoted in or republished by a dozen other outlets identified by StratCom as
either “pro-Kremlin or anti-Western.” Among them was the influential InfoWars
website, which is widely read among the so-called “alt-right” movement – a loose
confederation of U.S. white supremacists and nativists – that supported Mr.
Trump’s run for the White House. The hashtag #syriahoax began trending on
Twitter.

The al-Masdar article repeated the Syrian government’s claim that it has no
chemical weapons. It suggested “terrorist forces have once again created a false
flag scenario,” asserting the casualties could not have been caused by sarin
gas, as was believed, because photographs showed rescue workers without gloves
near the bodies of the victims, and that “local sources” said the bodies were
those of people kidnapped by al-Qaeda a week earlier. Alternatively, it stated,
the deaths might have been the result of the Syrian air force bombing a
warehouse where the local al-Qaeda affiliate had been manufacturing chemical
weapons.

The latter is the version of events the Kremlin has been advancing, although a
reporter from Britain’s The Guardian newspaper who visited Khan Sheikhoun two
days after the attack found that the building Moscow identified as a
chemical-weapons warehouse was only “half-destroyed silos reeking of leftover
grain and animal manure.”

The United States says it has satellite evidence showing the Syrian air force
deliberately carried out the chemical attack on the town. U.S. Secretary of
State Rex Tillerson has charged that Russia either knew of or was willfully
blind about the attack. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical
Weapons, which is based in The Hague, found that sarin was indeed used in the
attack. In September, a UN commission of inquiry reported that Syria’s military
was responsible.

The Khan Sheikhoun story was an example of globalresearch.ca amplifying a story
from an obscure source. Janis Sarts, the director of StratCom, said
globalresearch.ca repeatedly played a role in disseminating “disinformation” by
giving pro-Russia and pro-Assad stories a wider audience and a veneer of
credibility by publishing them through an authoritative-sounding Canadian
source.

He said it would be “very difficult” for larger news organizations such as
Russian and Iranian state news agencies to pick up an article from an obscure
source such as al-Masdar, but when it is circulated through Global Research,
“then they say, ‘Oh! In the West they’re saying this!’ ”
Unlike al-Masdar News, which Mr. Sarts said had a limited reach,
globalresearch.ca claims to have more than 2.7 million unique visitors a month.
Among the 25,000 accounts that follow the Centre for Research on Globalization
on Twitter are Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian embassy in
Canada and the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin think tank.

It is not only a site that reposts articles from little-known sites for its
wider readership. It pushes the narrative. In the case of the sarin attack, it
quickly supplemented the al-Masdar hoax story with a series of articles and
opinion pieces that took the false flag and mistaken-blame narrative for granted
– both before and after the April 7 U.S. missile strikes.

In the week after Khan Sheikhoun, the 10 most-tweeted globalresearch.ca articles
were about the gas attack, according to social-media analytics tools. In
addition to the alMasdar story, they included a piece with the headline, Did
Hillary approve sending sarin to rebels?, and several that argued the attack was
a false flag to justify a regime change operation.

They were spread on Twitter by a mix of far-right, alt-left and anarchist groups
– and bots. In fact, this is now a feature of globalresearch- .ca’s reach: It is
being aggressively amplified by Twitter users pushing its content, including
automated accounts. Because Twitter allows users anonymity, it’s hard to say
with certainty which accounts are bots, but some exhibit the hallmarks of
automation, such as excessively heavy tweeting or a high percentage of retweets.

The now-suspended account @YOUNGFiREBRAND, which uses the name “God’s Lion,”
appeared to take a fire-and-brimstone view of the world and mentioned
globalresearch.ca more than 700 times the week after the Khan Sheikhoun attack.
Another prolific retweeter, @Col_Connaughton, is a virulently anti-Israel,
pro-Iran account that tweets more than a human can: Its 1.5 million tweets
amount to 600 a day, every day, for seven years.

The account @elzi0n, whose Twitter bio claims he is Australian and, among other
things, a truth-seeker, activist and hip-hop purist, is a heavy retweeter of
globalresearch.ca stories. The account has 182,000 followers, but many, if not
most, are automated corporate or PR accounts that makes @elzi0n look more
influential than it is. Its tweets are rarely its own. Mostly it retweets posts
and stories from other sources, especially RT – the statefunded TV and online
service formerly called Russia Today – British conspiracy blogger David Icke and
Global Research.

And then there is cross-posting. Global Research frequently republishes articles
that first appeared on RT or the Kremlin-run Sputnik news agency, which also
frequently quotes Mr. Chossudovsky as a source. And it gives content from
obscure sites exposure.

“There’s this whole system of cross-posting articles, where you generate views
for another website and you start doing favours,” said Guillaume Kress, who
worked as an editorial assistant at Global Research. “I don’t know much about
the system itself, but it’s very, very interesting.”
Mr. Chossudovsky is treated as an esteemed researcher when he appears on RT and
its op-ed website, which carries a bio that calls him “an award-winning author,
professor of economics (emeritus) at the University of Ottawa, founder and
director of the Centre for Research on Globalization.”

Other writers for the site are similarly lionized by RT. F. Willam Engdahl,
whose writing includes reports that the CIA is behind pro-democracy movements in
Hungary and that genetically modified organisms are part of a conspiracy
designed just after the Second World War to control the world’s food supply, has
written for publications of the conspiracy-minded Lyndon LaRouche political
movement, which sees Prince Charles as the leader of an evil international plot,
and for Global Research. His RT bio calls him “an award-winning geopolitical
analyst and strategic risk consultant” and a “Research Associate of the Centre
for Research on Globalization in Montreal.”

Among globalresearch.ca’s listed “partner websites” is the Moscowbased Strategic
Culture Foundation, known for promoting the Kremlin narrative that the ouster of
Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was a Western-backed coup d’état rather
than a popular revolution. Its contributors include pro-Russian authors such as
Andrew Korybko, a former journalist with Sputnik who now works for pro-Russian
think tank Katehon, and Jerome Corsi, now the Washington bureau chief for the
U.S. conspiracy site InfoWars.

It is clear that Global Research is in some sense now part of an online network.
What’s not clear is whether Mr. Chossudovsky’s site is trying to amplify the
views of the Kremlin and the Assad regime or whether his views are being
amplified by proRussia, pro-Assad networks who favour globalresearch.ca’s
storylines.

Mr. Kress, who started working for Global Research as a kind of intern just
after graduating from Concordia University, quickly became a paid employee who
woke early every day, including weekends, to post stories. He believes it is the
latter – that Global Research’s political leanings mean its content is “in line
with Russian media in general.

“It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, given what the big themes are for Global
Research. I mean, anti-U.S., NATO,” he said. “That kind of sounds like Russia to
me.”

Tracing firm links is difficult. Those Facebook ads were linked to Russian
operatives, not a direct Kremlin purchase. Russian state news sites such as RT
and Sputnik have overt links to Moscow. There are sites with less direct links,
such as The Duran, whose founders include former RT pundits. But there are also
a number of alternative sites that regularly post views in line with Moscow’s
but assert they are independent. Sites such as ProporNot.com, which identify
what they believe to be Russian propaganda sites – including globalresearch.ca –
have led to counterallegations that there is a McCarthyist attempt to
marginalize their politics.

Phil Taylor, a Sputnik International blogger, published a book called Putin’s
Praetorians: Confessions of the Top Kremlin Trolls, in which pro-Russia writers
such as Global Research’s Mr. Engdahl try to debunk the notion of Kremlin-backed
propaganda, all the while “confessing” the reasons they admire Russian President
Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Chossudovsky and his wife, retired CEGEP teacher Micheline Ladouceur, who
edits the Frenchlanguage version of the site, appear to have begun with a
handful of contributors. Some were other retired academics, often writing
opinions on matters outside their fields – usually sympathizers with the
anticapitalist or anti-war leanings of the site.

Mr. Kress, now a business student in France, said he was looking to do some form
of writing or journalism after graduating from Concordia and answered a Global
Research ad. He ended up working there for eight months, eventually finding the
site’s “heavy” content stressful. He became frustrated that it didn’t really
have, in his view, a consistent voice or a coherent theory, but he said he
believes that Mr. Chossudovsky believes in what he’s doing.

The site, according to Mr. Kress, is operated by a small support staff, with the
articles chosen by Mr. Chossudovsky from other sites or contributors who submit
articles in a “constant inflow” from around the world. Mr. Kress said it’s a
“small organization” but didn’t want to say how many people work for Global
Research or talk about them. He did not explain why. He said he worked from
home, posting articles using the open source software WordPress, but did not say
if others worked from Mr. Chossudovsky’s L’Île-Cadieux home, a wooded property
with an assessed value of $1.1million, or his Old Montreal condo.

The size of the organization is surprisingly hard to discern, especially since
Mr. Chossudovsky did not want to discuss it. The website lists “research
associates” and “correspondents,” who are essentially its regular contributors,
and a group of four or five editors and administrators. In addition to Mr.
Chossudovsky and his wife, there is an office manager, Alex Vlaanderen, and
typically one or two others. For a year, Mr. Kress was listed as a “consultant.”

He said the site has revenue from ads and believed it may also benefit
financially from cross-posting content from other sites, but he did not know.
The site’s web traffic helps it earn revenue from display ads through online ad
resellers.

But it appears Global Research’s traffic was hit by Google’s efforts to reduce
the “viral” impact of fake news and purveyors of unsubstantiated conspiracy
theories. The site touts itself as one of the 15,000 most-visited in the world,
according to Alexa, a web-traffic analytics site; but by November, Alexa said it
was not even in the top 24,000.

(Some sites have complained that Google’s search-engine change has also hit the
traffic of left-wing websites that aren’t known for spreading false information.
For instance, the World Socialist Web Site, a Trotskyite site, complained in
July that its traffic had plummeted after Google’s changes.)

In October, Mr. Chossudovsky made an online appeal for help. Global Research, he
said, “is facing financial difficulties.

“To reverse the Tide of Media Disinformation, we Need your Support.”

Jules Dufour, a former university geography professor in Saguenay, Que., was one
of Mr. Chossudovsky’s longest-serving contributors. Before he died in August, he
told The Globe and Mail in an interview that he was an anti-war activist who saw
globalresearch.ca as having a mission to “denounce lies,” notably about
conflicts.

What about its conspiracy theories? “Well, there are certainly conspiracies.
History demonstrates it,” Mr. Dufour said. The justification for going to war
with Saddam Hussein was false, he said, and so was the assertion that the Assad
regime was behind the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Mr. Dufour didn’t seem
very worried that Global Research was spreading false information from obscure
sources, either. “There may be things like that, but it’s hard to control
everything,” he said.

The false information is not limited to topics that fit the site’s purported
international-relations mission. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election
campaign, globalresearch.ca published a piece by a Florida anesthesiologist who
claimed that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease – a
claim that was circulated on far right and pro-Russia conspiracy sites and
repeated by Trump supporters until it was mooted in mainstream tabloids and
debunked by fact-checking site Snopes and physicians with knowledge of the
disease.

StratCom first took note of globalresearch.ca in January, when it was the first
website to republish an article – originally carried by the Donbass
International News Agency, a pro-Kremlin news service that operates out of
separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine – alleging that the United States had
3,600 tanks ready to deploy near the Russian border as part of a NATO mission.

The real number of tanks deployed to Poland and the Baltic States of Lithuania,
Latvia and Estonia under Operation Atlantic Resolve was 87.
Despite the dubious nature of the source and the easily checked facts (the
United States only has 8,848 tanks worldwide), globalresearch.ca carried the
Donbass story verbatim, with Mr. Chossudovsky penning an introduction
hypothesizing that the large military buildup could be departing U.S. president
Barack Obama’s retribution for Russia’s alleged hacking attacks during the U.S.
election.

The article then spread through some of the same websites that republished the
Syria hoax story, before a toned-down version of the tale – mentioning 200 U.S.
tanks – appeared on the RT website.

“What we found was that Global Research was essential in getting the ‘3,600
tanks’ story more mainstream attention. Once it was picked up by them, it was
picked up by their network of loyal allies,” said StratCom’s Ms. Barojan, who
also does digital research for the Atlantic Council, a
U.S.-government-affiliated think tank.

Mr. Kress said he thought Mr. Chossudovsky believed in his site’s mission, but
he clearly liked it when Global Research content went viral.
“He asked me to clickbait,” Mr. Kress said.

The young editorial assistant used the internet to put together a piece that
claimed the Rockefeller Foundation had patented the Zika virus – when, in fact,
researchers for the foundation had merely deposited a strain of the virus with
an organization that preserves micro-organisms for research. But Mr. Kress’s
piece “blew up the internet,” in his words, spreading around a series of sites,
including InfoWars.

“It was just something I did, kind of like, in my room at 1 a.m., because I
noticed something on some other – I checked the Zika virus website and just kind
of copypasted what I saw there and put quotes and linked my article to it. And
basically, yeah, it worked. But he liked that. And I didn’t really like it –
deep down.”


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