Online propagandaA Gateway into the‘Pro Russian Ecosystem’
Matt Bernardini investigates the influential academic website Swiss Policy Research which claims to expose ‘geopolitical propaganda’ but seems more intent on spreading it
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When Julian Assange tweeted out a graphic about the Council on Foreign Relations and its links to major media outlets called ‘the media navigator’ in 2018, it appeared that he was circulating a thoroughly researched diagram from a reputable academic organisation. Instead, he was amplifying a little-known and secretive organization that has spread disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a plethora of other topics involving Russia.
Swiss Policy Research, which was founded in 2016, markets itself as “an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit research group investigating geopolitical propaganda.” The organization’s website says that it relies solely on reader donations and is composed of independent academics. Yet finding out who these academics are is nearly impossible. There are no names associated with any of the organisation’s website, no company name or address, and the contact form only elicits a response from a generic Proton Mail address.
SPR was initially called Swiss Propaganda Research and its early “research” consisted mainly of attacks on the US, Swiss and German media. The graphic that Assange circulated was from a report titled ‘The American Empire and its Media’ which claims that nearly all major members of American media are connected to the Council on Foreign Relations, The Bilderberg Group and The Trilateral Commission.
Assange wasn’t the only high-profile figure to circulate this theory. Kim Dotcom, an internet entrepreneur in New Zealand who is facing extradition to the US on racketeering charges, also tweeted out the diagram. Zero Hedge, which the US has accused of spreading Russian propaganda, republished the article. So did the Russian websites Sputnik and Vesti Finance.
“Russian state and proxy news outlets and blogs definitely work as part of an ecosystem and reproduce and reinforce each other,” Emma Briant, an associate at the University of Cambridge Centre for Financial Reporting and Accountability said. “To me, SPR is particularly interesting as it acts as an aggregator to introduce people to new content in the closed pro-Russian ecosystem.”
Despite its early focus on media research, SPR began to branch out into geopolitical issues, many of which involve Russia. In 2018, SPR posted a summary of a 2016 documentary called The Magnitsky Act – Behind the Scenes. The film argues that Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison after investigating large-scale tax fraud by Russian officials, was actually an accomplice instead of a victim. The film was controversially screened in Washington D.C. in June 2016. One of those who attended the screening was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort.
SPR has also amplified false claims about the 2016 Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. It promotes a book by British researcher David Blake called Loaded for Guccifer 2.0 which claims that the hacking was actually an inside job done by the FBI. The organization also named Seth Rich as a possible suspect. Rich, a DNC employee murdered in 2016, has been the subject of multiple conspiracy theories that he was responsible for leaking the DNC emails.
When the Byline Times reached out to SPR about their inclusion of these hacking claims, they responded the article “was based on new IT forensic research results at the time.”
Just after the 2020 election, SPR posted a link to a One America News documentary that falsely argues that Joe Biden was responsible for firing a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating a gas company that Biden’s son was on the board of. Also mentioned on the website is Ukrainian politician Andrii Derkach, sanctioned by the U.S. for being a Russian agent.
SPR has also provided analysis on the ongoing war in Ukraine and frequently recommended that its readers visit SouthFront, a website that was sanctioned by the US last year for receiving tasking from the FSB.
Much of the mainstream attention that SPR has received comes from its COVID misinformation. The group has spread theories that COVID originated in a lab, facemasks and social distancing don’t work, and vaccines may even increase deaths.
Reuters published a fact check about Facebook posts claiming that mask mandates have led to an increase in Covid. The posts use graphs from SPR. In July 2020 leaflets were found in Zurich promoting Covid misinformation. The leaflets featured a QR code that linked back to SPR’s website.
FreedomMattersNC, an anti-lockdown organization in North Carolina, cited SPR as a resource to follow for people who are against Covid mandates. Several other anti-covid organizations as well have cited SPR as a medical source. SPR’s appearance gives it credibility with these organizations, Briant said.
“It helps to create more credible looking outlets to help people convince themselves that there’s a basis for what they believe, participate and argue for,” Briant said.
Behind the Scenes
While the authors behind SPR are very hard to determine, its content offers some clues about the intended audience.
Edda Humprecht, a professor who researches disinformation at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said that Switzerland may not be the target for SPR, despite its name.
“There are a number of Swiss alternative media, which often have a larger audience in Germany or Austria and often represent the positions of populist parties in the German-speaking countries,” Humprecht said. “SPR’s critique of elites and the media fits in well there.”
One person speculated to have been behind the website is Swiss author Daniele Ganser. Ganser has written about many similar topics that SPR has, and the website even has a whole page about Ganser. However, SPR also posted a note saying that “Ganser is not a member.”
Ganser told the Byline Times that he reached out to SPR to find out who was involved, but they would not tell him.
“I still think their Media Navigator is spot on,” Ganser told Byline Times. “So these guys, whoever they are, know what they are doing.”
This article was amended on 29/08/22 to correct the timing of SPR’s link to the One News America Joe Biden documentary.