When it comes to putting disinformation in front of American eyeballs, Vladimir Putin has long been able to count alt-right social media stars like Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich as reliable allies. Now the One America News Network, a pro-Trump cable news and commentary channel, is joining them in embracing some of Moscow’s most vile fake news.
On Wednesday OANN aired a segment claiming to reveal that dozens of members of the Syrian Civil Defense, a humanitarian group known as the White Helmets, have confessed to faking chemical weapons attacks in Syria to frame Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator propped up by Putin.
“At least 40 members of the terrorist-linked White Helmets have admitted they staged fake chemical attacks to provoke retaliation against the Syrian Government,” began the report by OANN correspondent Pearson Sharp. “Members of the group, who won an Oscar for their Netflix documentary, came out in recent interviews for a study presented to the United Nations and confessed they had in fact faked the attacks.”
In the real world, the White Helmets are a humanitarian group whose rescue workers are credited with saving at least 100,000 civilians caught in the crossfire of Syria’s bloody civil war. Until recently group was partly funded by the US State Department, and it’s routinely praised as heroic by Western world leaders. A 2016 Netflix documentary on the White Helmets won an Oscar for its British producer.
This cable news smear traces directly to a frenzied disinformation campaign by Russia aimed at linking the White Helmets to a broad range of wrongdoing: things like running a black market in human organs, colluding with terrorists and faking Assad’s chemical weapons attacks. Moscow has been relentless in pushing these claims, tirelessly falsifying videos and photographs, creating phony news outlets and fake think tanks to do so. Some of the same GRU officers involved in the 2016 election interference created fake freelance journalists to pitch stories smearing the White Helmets to legitimate news outlets.
But the governments of Syria and Russia detest the volunteers, who have the inconvenient habit of toting video cameras on their rescue missions. Footage captured by the group has not only laid bare the horrifying civilian toll in Syria, but repeatedly exposed the carnage wrought by Assad’s use of illegal chemical weapons.
Russia’s disinformation about the White Helmets has come to dominate search results, thanks to prominent American trolls, Russian government outlets like the RT network and Sputnik, and a handful of alternative news websites surrounded by a social media echo chamber.
Moscow’s latest disinformation blitz is all about a report produced by the “Foundation for the Study of Democracy”, a Russian NGO headed by one Maxim Grigoriev. On April 25, Russian diplomats brought Grigoriev into the UN, where he presented his report in a a plenary room in the basement. Then they took him to Washington, D.C. for a press conference at the Russian embassy four days later.
In Wednesday’s segment, OANN correspondent Pearson Sharp mentions the UN briefing for institutional gravitas, but doesn’t mention which country brought Grigoriev into the room. And despite Moscow’s obvious self-interest in burnishing Assad’s image, he doesn’t disclose the Kremlin’s midwifing of the report at all, nor that the Foundation for the Study of Democracy is a Russian institution.
Sharp defended those omissions in an email exchange with The Daily Beast, writing that “the veracity of Grigoriev report doesn’t hinge on the fact that he’s Russian, and has worked with the Russian government. It hinges on the evidence of the report.”
Sharp's news segment does find time to refer to the White Helmets—parenthetically, as though tossing out a well-known fact—as “terrorist-linked” and “terrorist sympathizers,” pulling a continuing thread in Russia’s disinformation that some experts think is intended to brand the Syrian rescue workers as legitimate military targets.
Headquartered in San Diego, One America News Network was launched in 2013 by circuit-board magnate Robert Herring, who said he intended it as an alternative to Fox News. Around the 2016 election the channel declared Donald Trump fans as its core audience, and for a time it employed former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
The network has a history with fake news. Last year it reported that California lawmakers were considering a bill to outlaw the sale of Bibles in the state, and Sharp’s earlier work includes a segment pushing the noxious Seth Rich conspiracy. The networks recent hires include notorious Pizzagate pusher Jack Posobiec, who joined as a political correspondent.
Although the latest Nielsen report ranks OANN’s ratings somewhere below the Tennis Channel, there’s enormous value to Moscow in getting its fake White Helmets news repeated in any American newscast, said former FBI agent Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“It’s source laundering,” Watts told the Daily Beast. “Then they can recirculate the story as an organic American story, and that could travel further than if it’s only on RT and Sputnik… The more places it shows up the more it looks like it’s not a single source origin story.”
There’s another benefit to the Kremlin in airing its disinformation on OANN. One of the channel’s most ardent and credulous viewers happens to be President of the United States.
“It's a great network,” Donald Trump said during a 2017 news conference.
Though Trump hasn’t commented on the White Helmets story, he’s definitely watching the network. Last month he tweeted an old conspiracy claim, discredited in 2017, that the U.K.’s signals intelligence agency helped President Obama spy on his campaign, after seeing a segment about it on OANN.
“WOW!,” the president wrote. “It is now just a question of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it will be a beauty!”