A website founded by a former US Marine who now lives in Russia has fuelled a rumour that Volodymyr Zelensky purchased two luxury yachts with American aid money.
Despite the false claim, the disinformation plot was successful. It took off online and was echoed by members of the US Congress making crucial decisions about military spending.
The story first emerged in late November on an obscure YouTube channel - one with only a handful of followers and just a single video in its feed.The next day, it was picked up by a site called DC Weekly, alongside pictures of the two yachts - called Lucky Me and My Legacy - and documents purportedly confirming the sale of the boats to Zelensky's associates.
But the luxury yacht brokers where both vessels are listed for sale said that the allegations are false. The sales documents appear to be forgeries. And instead of having been purchased by Zelensky or his close advisers, both Lucky Me and My Legacy are still up for sale.
Research by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, disinformation researchers at Clemson University, shows that DC Weekly was started by John Mark Dougan, a former US Marine and Florida police officer who moved to Russia in 2016.
Mr Dougan spent three years as a deputy with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office, then after he left in 2009 he started a website spreading rumours about his former employers.
Since moving to Russia he has reinvented himself as a journalist covering the invasion of Ukraine, and has spread a number of false and baseless claims - for example that Russia was attempting to destroy biological weapons labs.
DC Weekly, the Clemson researchers discovered, is full of news stories copied from other sites and rewritten by artificial intelligence engines. The site's "reporters" have fake names along with headshots copied from elsewhere on the internet.
Mixed in with the rewritten stories - apparently designed to give the site a sheen of legitimacy - are dubious original reports.
JD Vance tells Steve Bannon today that people in Washington want to cut Social Security benefits to then give that money to Ukraine so Zelensky’s ministers can buy yachts. pic.twitter.com/IPlq3jYdOr— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) December 11, 2023
The Russian government and its proxies attempted to denigrate the Democratic Party and undermine voter confidence ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, an operation that most likely sought to weaken U.S. support for Ukraine, U.S. intelligence agencies said.
China also tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of unidentified midterm races, though it refrained from favoring one party, as Beijing exhibited a greater willingness to target the U.S. with election-influence activities than it has previously, according to a newly released intelligence community assessment. Iran also was blamed for trying to undermine confidence in U.S. democracy, while other foreign governments, including Cuba, were said to have experimented with small-scale U.S. influence pushes.
The findings come amid rising concerns from U.S. officials and security experts about foreign adversaries potentially pouring ample resources into interfering in the 2024 presidential election contest eight years after Russia engineered a multipronged interference campaign to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, his Democratic foe in the 2016 election.
“While Russian officials most likely recognized that U.S. support for Ukraine was largely bipartisan, Russian influence actors disproportionately targeted the Democratic Party, probably because Moscow blames the U.S. president for forging a unified Western alliance and for Kyiv’s continued pro-Western trajectory,” the report said. Russia also criticized a small number of Republican politicians that the Kremlin perceived as anti-Russian, it said.
...The desire to harm the Democratic Party at times appeared to affect Russia’s prosecution of the war itself. The report says that Russian military officials delayed withdrawal from the Ukrainian city of Kherson until after the midterms to avoid giving Democrats a perceived win before the election. Russia announced its withdrawal a day after the election.