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Monday, June 3, 2024

American Defector and Russian Disinformation

Many posts have discussed myths and misinformation.

Brandy Zadrozny at NBC:

More than 150 fake local news websites pushing Russian propaganda to U.S. audiences are connected to John Mark Dougan, an American former law enforcement officer living in Moscow, according to a research report published Wednesday by NewsGuard, a firm that monitors misinformation.

The websites, with names like DC Weekly, New York News Daily and Boston Times, look similar to those of legitimate local news outlets and have already succeeded in spreading a number of false stories surrounding the war in Ukraine. Experts warn they could be used to launder disinformation about the 2024 election.

In an interview over WhatsApp, Dougan denied involvement with the websites. “Never heard of them,” he said.

Dougan, a former Marine and police officer, fled his home in Florida in 2016 to evade criminal charges related to a massive doxxing campaign he was accused of launching against public officials and was given asylum by the Russian government. Most recently, Dougan has posed as a journalist in Ukraine’s Donbas region, testifying at Russian public hearings and making frequent appearances on Russian state TV.

He’s now part of a small club of Western expats who have become purveyors of English-language propaganda for Russia. Researchers and cybersecurity companies had previously linked Dougan to the sites. The NewsGuard report published Wednesday is the latest to implicate him in the fake news ring.

Academic research from Clemson University linked Dougan to the network of fake news websites last year after one of them was found to share an IP address with other sites he ran, including his personal website.

In an interview, Darren Linvill, co-director of the Watt Family Innovation Center Media Forensics Hub at Clemson, called Dougan “a tool of the broader Russian disinformation machine” whose websites “are just one of several mechanisms by which these narratives are distributed.”

McKenzie Sadeghi at NewsGuard:

This is an inside, yet almost accidental, story about how an American fugitive who sought asylum in Moscow has become a key player in Russia’s global disinformation network. It starts with a NewsGuard analyst happening upon what appeared to be a fledgling Washington D.C.-based news site promoting Russian propaganda. Unbeknownst to her, this was six months after her boss and his family had been threatened in a YouTube video that included an aerial shot of his home and calls to his unlisted phone number by a Russian disinformation operative working from a studio in Moscow. It turns out that this D.C. website, those threats to NewsGuard’s co-CEO, and what NewsGuard discovered were dozens of similar hostile information operations — including a “documentary” that the Russians used as an excuse to invade Ukraine — were all orchestrated by the same man — John Mark Dougan, a former Florida deputy sheriff who fled to Moscow after being investigated for computer hacking and extortion.

As of this writing, NewsGuard has discovered 167 Russian disinformation websites that appear to be part of Dougan’s network of websites masquerading as independent local news publishers in the U.S. and 15 films on Dougan’s since-removed YouTube channel. Ranging from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky siphoning off money meant to aid the war against Russia so he could buy an estate in England owned by King Charles, to a non-existent U.S. bioweapons lab in Ukraine being the reason the Russians had to invade that country, these concocted stories have been amplified on social media accounts to reach a broad global audience of more than 37 million views—including 1,300,000 views of just the narrative about Zelensky buying the king’s estate.

What follows—including multiple conversations with the Russian operative and an excerpt from NewsGuard co-CEO Steven Brill’s upcoming book, “The Death of Truth,” recounting Brill’s harrowing experience with the same man—is the story of how NewsGuard connected the dots, shining light on a sophisticated multi-media global disinformation operation.