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One of the first successful Russian-backed misinformation efforts of the 2020 election tricked Donald Trump Jr. and Ted Cruz into helping spread false claims about Portland protesters

Business Insider logo Business Insider 8/12/2020 tsonnemaker@businessinsider.com (Tyler Sonnemaker)
Donald Trump Jr. wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted misleading accounts of Portland protests that had been aired and promoted by Russian-backed media. Rick Wilking/Reuters; Jabin Botsford/Getty Images © Rick Wilking/Reuters; Jabin Botsford/Getty Images Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted misleading accounts of Portland protests that had been aired and promoted by Russian-backed media. Rick Wilking/Reuters; Jabin Botsford/Getty Images
  • Prominent conservatives including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted misleading claims and footage attempting to depict Portland protesters as having burned a "stack of Bibles."
  • But the narrative was originally set in motion by Russian-backed media outlet Ruptly, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
  • After Ruptly aired misleadingly edited footage of the protesters, a right-wing commentator tweeted the footage along with claims further mischaracterizing them, which several conservative politicians and news outlets then amplified.
  • The incident reveals Russia's evolving and increasingly nuanced misinformation tactics, which now rely on real people spreading stories with elements of truth, not just fake news.
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Several high-profile conservatives including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas shared Russian misinformation, the The New York Times reported Tuesday.

In Portland, Oregon, protests against police brutality have continued for more than 70 consecutive days. The protesters themselves have been largely peaceful, but have also on some occasions lit bonfires

In one of those instances, footage from Ruptly, the video arm of Russian state-backed media outlet Russia Today, showed some protesters using a Bible and American flag to start a fire, which others eventually put out, according to The New York Times.

Multiple local media outlets reported that the protests had been peaceful throughout the day and that the fire was started only at the end of the night as a dwindling crowd of somewhere between a few dozen and 100 people spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement, while only one mentioned a Bible being involved at all.

But Ruptly, which has livestreamed the protests and published highlight clips nightly, focused its summary video that night on the burning of what appeared to be a single Bible, The New York Times reported. Twice, it tweeted the video, noting the Bible being set ablaze both times.

A Twitter user with just a few followers also tweeted the video shortly before deleting their account, but not before  right-wing agitator Ian Miles Cheong retweeted them, adding his own false claim that the protesters burned "a stack of Bibles." 

Cheong's tweet then went viral, sparking coverage from prominent and conservative media outlets and blogs including the New York Post, The Federalist, Gateway Pundit, and The Blaze, as well as retweets from Trump Jr. and Sen. Cruz.

The success of Ruptly's misleading coverage of the Portland protests reveals how Russia's misinformation tactics have evolved since the 2016 presidential election, where American intelligence agencies have repeatedly concluded that Russia interfered with the aim of hurting Hillary Clinton's candidacy.

In 2016, Russia relied heavily on fake Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media accounts to artificially amplify fake news stories created by the Internet Research Agency, its in-house troll farm.

But Russia is deploying new, more sophisticated tactics this time around, and the Portland protest story shows how it has learned to leverage hot-button issues that are likely to resonate with highly partisan or ideological groups in order to sow dissent.

Cybersecurity experts have found that Russia is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic and racial tension in the US, and US intelligence agencies have warned that Russia is attempting to sway the election toward Trump again in 2020, though Trump has repeatedly downplayed the assessments of US intelligence agencies, instead giving deference to fringe agitators who support him.

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