President Donald Trump may have tried to dismiss claims that his campaign colluded with Russia as "fake news," but a new report suggests that an FBI-led team is investigating how right-wing sites — peddling pro-Trump and anti-Clinton stories, fake and real alike — were promoted by Russian cyber intelligence.
Russian cyber intelligence are believed to have created bots that promoted those stories throughout social media, and particularly on Facebook and Twitter, during times in the 2016 presidential election when Trump seemed to be trailing in the polls, according to McClatchy. The sites promoted included not only Russian propaganda sites like RT and Sputnik News, but also far right sites like InfoWars (run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones) and Breitbart (then run by CEO Steve Bannon, who is now Trump's chief strategist).
"This may be one of the most highly impactful information operations in the history of intelligence," one former American intelligence official told McClatchy.
One professor who studied the bots, Philip Howard of the Oxford University Internet Institute, noted that they also frequently linked people to the leaked Democratic Party emails being published by WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange has well-known connections to the Russian government. They often used WikiLeaks documents as the basis for groundless conspiracy theories, such as the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which held that a prominent Clinton staffer was involved in a pedophile sex ring operated out of a Washington pizza parlor. That conspiracy theory ultimately culminated in an armed gunmen "investigating" the pizzeria in December.
"Trump friends, associates and staffers would go on TV make some wild claim that no one had heard before," writes Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo. "Then it would turn out that the only other place the story had appeared was on RT or SputnikNews or even some Russian language propaganda mill."
After pointing out that Trump and his campaign clearly spent a great deal of time absorbing information from alt right media (and still do), Marshall adds, "The fact that these sites and their audiences were apparently targeted as vectors for spreading pro-Trump and anti-Hillary propaganda, although perhaps unwittingly, is probably the best explanation of why they're coming up in these probes."