By Mike McIntire New York Times December 17, 2016
The Patriot News Agency website popped up in July, soon after it became clear that Donald Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination, bearing a logo of a red, white, and blue eagle and the motto “Built by patriots, for patriots.”
Tucked away on a corner of the site, next to links for Twitter and YouTube, is a link to another social media platform that most Americans have never heard of: VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. It is a clue that Patriot News, like many sites that appeared out of nowhere and pumped out pro-Trump hoaxes tying his opponent Hillary Clinton to Satanism, pedophilia, and other conspiracies, is actually run by foreigners based overseas.
But while most of those others seem be the work of young, apolitical opportunists cashing in on a conservative appetite for viral nonsense, operators of Patriot News had an explicitly partisan motivation: getting Trump elected.
Patriot News — whose postings were viewed and shared tens of thousands of times in the United States — is among a constellation of websites run out of the United Kingdom linked to James Dowson, a far-right political activist who advocated Britain’s exit from the EU and is a fan of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. A vocal proponent of Christian nationalist, anti-immigrant movements in Europe, Dowson, 52, has spoken at a conference of far-right leaders in Russia and makes no secret of his hope that Trump will usher in an era of rapprochement with Putin.
His dabbling in the US presidential election adds an ideological element that has been largely missing from the still-emerging landscape of websites and Facebook pages that bombarded US voters with misinformation and propaganda. Far from the much-reported Macedonian teenagers running fake news factories solely for profit, Dowson made it his mission, according to messages posted on one of his sites, to “spread devastating anti-Clinton, pro-Trump memes and sound bites into sections of the population too disillusioned with politics to have taken any notice of conventional campaigning.”
“Together, people like us helped change the course of history,” one message said, adding in another: “Every single one of you who forwarded even just one of our posts on social media contributed to the stunning victory for Trump, America and God.”
In a recent e-mail interview from Belgrade, where he has met with Serbian nationalists, Dowson explained how his decision to establish a US social media presence was similar to the move into European markets by Breitbart News, the conservative provocateur media operation previously run by Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.
“Simple truth is that after 40 years of the right having no voice because the media was owned by the enemy, we were FORCED to become incredibly good at alternative media in a way the left simply can’t grasp or handle,” Dowson said. “Bottom line is: BREXIT, TRUMP and much more to follow.”
While it is easy to overstate the influence of fringe elements whose overall numbers remain very small, the explosion of fake news and propaganda sites and their possible effect on the presidential election have ignited alarm across the US political spectrum. A recent study found that most people who read fabricated stories on Facebook — such as a widely circulated hoax about Pope Francis endorsing Trump — were inclined to believe them.
Then there is the added element of Russian meddling. The CIA has concluded that Moscow put its thumb on the scale for Trump through the release of hacked Democratic e-mails, which provided fodder for many of the most pernicious false attacks on Clinton on social media.
Some of those attacks found a home on Russian websites such as the one for Katehon, a right-wing Christian think tank aligned with Putin. Katehon recirculated anti-Clinton conspiracies under headlines like “Bloody Hillary: 5 Mysterious Murders Linked to Clinton.”
Another Russian site that urged support for Trump, called “Just Trump It,” is linked to the International Russian Conservative Forum, an annual gathering of far-right leaders in St. Petersburg that has featured Dowson, among others, as a speaker. The site, which seems mostly aimed at selling Trump T-shirts, was registered to an individual at a Russian company that trademarked a logo used to certify that merchandise was not made with migrant labor.
Some analysts see danger signs in the nexus of Russian interests and far-right agitators in Europe and the United States. Social media can amplify even the most obscure voices, giving them a stage from which to broadcast a distorted message to credulous audiences.
“These messages seep into the mainstream,” said Alina Polyakova of the Atlantic Council, anonpartisan international affairs institute in Washington. “They may have been extreme or fringe at one point in time, but they have been incredibly influential in shaping people’s viewsabout key geopolitical events in a very specific direction.”
Dowson claims to have reached millions of Americans across all of his online platforms in the run-up to the November presidential election, a number that could not be verified, in part, because he would not confirm all of his sites. Online visits to Patriot News did not come close to that, although when combined with several other sites that appear to be connected to Dowson, the total number edges above 1 million; most viewers were in Britain.
Whatever the precise numbers, there is little question that postings on the sites and Facebook pages linked to him were viewed and shared hundreds of thousands of times. Many of the postings appear to be lifted from other conspiracy websites, repackaged, and launched back into the social media maelstrom. Another site that trafficked heavily in pro-Trump news was run by Knights Templar International, a militant religious group that Dowson is involved in that has recently supported anti-immigrant militias patrolling border areas in Bulgaria and Hungary.