Has Russian Propaganda “Infected” Republicans? The Truth Is More Sinister.

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Earlier this month, Republican Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Puck News that Russian propaganda had “infected a good chunk of my party’s base.” Several days later, another Republican, Rep. Michael Turner of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he agreed. “Anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages, some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor,” Turner told CNN, are “directly coming from Russia.”

It was a notable moment—and a telling one, as the House gets ready for a contentious vote on aid to Ukraine. The vote is being loudly protested by far-right politicians including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is pushing to oust House Speaker Mike Johnson from his role over the issue.

It’s not the first time Republican lawmakers have accused their colleagues of essentially being Russian pawns. But as far-right rabble-rousers in the Republican Party have increasingly advocated against continued support of Ukraine—and even some mainstream Republicans no longer interpret Russian aggression as a ruthless threat to democracy and the international order—the most extreme lawmakers appear to be mirroring the Kremlin’s own propaganda.

Last Monday, Greene told Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast that Ukraine was waging a “war against Christianity” and Russians “seem to be protecting” the religion. The idea of Russia as a great (white) Christian nation has been percolating in right-wing thinking for more than a decade, despite Russia’s history of suppressing non-Orthodox Christianity and exerting power over the Russian Orthodox Church.

But Greene didn’t limit herself to praising Russia’s religious nationalism on Bannon’s show: She cited, as fact, anti-Ukraine disinformation that “the Ukrainian government is attacking Christians” and “executing priests.” This prompted former Rep. Ken Buck, another Republican, to call Greene “Moscow Marjorie” on CNN.

And indeed, this assertion does mirror Russia’s own talking points about Ukraine. (In actuality, the crimes Greene accused Ukraine of committing are crimes Russian forces have perpetrated.) But whether the Kremlin’s own talking points are being piped into the brains of right-wing American politicians—or just bear a striking similarity to the new isolationist rhetoric of the far right—is a matter of interesting debate.

Russian propaganda operations have evolved somewhat from the infamous social media campaigns that influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Take the case of a false narrative about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky using U.S. aid money to buy himself two yachts. This rumor—which is demonstrably false, given that the ownership of ships can be easily tracked—has been swirling in right-wing social media circles for months and popping up in American politicians’ talking points. It’s such an effective fabrication that North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis told CNN in December that the debate over aid to Ukraine had been halted on the Hill in part because some lawmakers were concerned that “people will buy yachts with this money.”

But where did that idea come from? According to the BBC, the assertion that Zelensky had purchased two luxury yachts with U.S. aid money originated in November on a YouTube channel with just a handful of followers. The day after the video was posted, a site called DC Weekly published the claim as news, and that report was then picked up by other websites.

DC Weekly is not some kind of alternative newspaper or community blog; Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren argued in a report in December that the website was likely created to share fake news created by Russian state actors. The site is populated with A.I. content, has clearly fake authors, and has been partially hosted on a server in Moscow.

Russian disinformation that is packaged as news, Linvill said in a phone interview, often follows a similar pattern of dissemination. “I would bet my retirement on the fact that the Russians create the videos, plant the videos, write the stories, plant the stories, and distribute the stories,” Linvill wrote in an email.

“It’s the logic of the thing,” he said, “but also the fact that it happens repeatedly.” He pointed to a dozen other instances of disinformation narratives that started as assertions in obscure YouTube videos and were then picked up by publications with similarly legitimate-sounding names.

From 2016 through 2020, Linvill said, Russian propagandists focused on creating social media accounts to promote divisive ideas within the existing American discourse. That is still happening. But today, Linvill said, resources are more likely to be directed toward creating entire fake platforms, including websites that look like news sites. The stories tend to be sensationalized in a way that encourages organic sharing.

According to the Washington Post, Kremlin materials “obtained by a European intelligence service” show Moscow-linked strategists also stoke division in the U.S. by amplifying stories based in reality—including about migrants overwhelming the border, poverty and inflation, and reasons not to trust mainstream media.

But the story of the yacht shows how a fabricated rumor, likely originating in Russia, can start circulating in American politics. On Bannon’s War Room in December, Sen. J.D. Vance said, of his fellow politicians, “there are people who would cut Social Security, throw our grandparents into poverty, why? So that one of Zelensky’s ministers can buy a bigger yacht?”

The yacht story had a specific origin, but the growing anti-Ukraine sentiment among right-wing circles is harder to trace. After years of warfare and many millions of dollars in American aid, it makes sense that American enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause might organically ebb.

And there is one man whose personal grudge against Ukraine could also cause Republicans to sour on a U.S. ally: Donald Trump.

“When American journalists and congresspeople use Russian talking points, they’re quoting Trump,” said Sarah Oates, a professor who studies disinformation and propaganda at the University of Maryland. “They are broadcasting Russian propaganda, but the conduit is Trump.”

Trump has several reasons to dismiss Russia’s threat to the international order. For starters, he openly admires authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and has shown an interest in modeling himself after them. More importantly, the association of his 2016 election with Russian election-meddling caused some on the left to question the legitimacy of his victory.

For legitimacy reasons, then, Republicans have an incentive to downplay the potency of Russian propaganda. Not to mention: The basis of much of the Republican Party’s attacks on President Biden relies on a misleading assertion that his son Hunter Biden colluded with corrupt Ukrainian officials. Portraying Ukraine as a corruption-riddled country bolsters right-wing conspiracy theories about Biden’s family.

In other words, shared talking points between Republicans and the Russian propaganda machine don’t necessarily mean Russia is effective in seeding its influence; it’s a mutually beneficial swirl of conspiracy theories. “I think this is just a highly useful convergence of goals for Putin and Trump,” Oates said.

“Trump does not care; he literally is not thinking about it,” Oates said, referring to the possibility that many of Trump’s talking points could come from Russia. “His calculus is, ‘How can I win?’ ”

Because it’s quite possible that Americans who want the U.S. to abandon Ukraine may have arrived at that opinion on their own, Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins, has warned against giving the Russians too much credit for swaying American public opinion.

Rid’s argument is: We shouldn’t help Russian strategists by assuming they’ve succeeded. Russia wants to undermine Americans’ trust in our systems and in our democracy. Believing that another country has the capability to, say, sway an election, serves that goal. “If we exaggerate the impact, we make the operations more successful than they would be otherwise,” he said, “and undermine trust in our own democracy, which is the goal of this game.”

It’s important, he argued, not to blame misinformation, isolationism, and other factors that led to changing views of the war on external actors alone. Americans, Rid said, are “perfectly capable of coming up with crazy ideas.”

Take Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s claim about why Putin needed to invade Ukraine. Speaking to a right-wing Alabama website, Tuberville said: “It’s a communist country, so he can’t feed his people, so they need more farmland.”

The claim—coming from a man who couldn’t name the three branches of American government and who thought World War II was fought over socialism—seems to be pure, homegrown nonsense.

“It’s blaming our own problems on others,” Rid said. “That’s the problem I find worrying.”

To be clear, Russian propaganda should be taken seriously: The country’s plans for deepening existing societal conflicts in the U.S. are not a secret. Given the various motivations at play and the inherent vagaries of how information and belief travel, though, it’s hard to know just how much the Republican Party has been “infected” by Russian propaganda, as Rep. McCaul put it.

What we can say with certainty is that there’s an alliance of interests. In his bizarre interview with Tucker Carlson in February, Putin laid out his several invented justifications for the invasion and said that he was interested in “peace.” The next day, Tuberville said he opposed sending aid to Ukraine because the Carlson interview “shows that Russia is open to a peace agreement.”

In her work, Oates found that researchers often couldn’t tell the difference between media pulled from Fox News and Russia Today, a Russian news network and propaganda arm; “identical” talking points don’t mean Russia is pulling the strings.

But there is still something to be gleaned from the coherence between Republicans and Russian strategists—and it’s probably a warning about our own news-media ecosystems. Rep. McCaul seemed to note this, telling Puck News that he saw “nighttime entertainment shows” in the U.S airing content that was “almost identical” to what was playing on Russian state TV.