US Elected Officials, Hyper-Partisan Media, and Foreign Disinformation Operations Spread Unsubstantiated NSA Spy Claims
Tucker Carlson claims the NSA is spying on his show. The NSA says it isn’t, and Carlson has provided no evidence, excepting his word to bolster the claims.
This report illustrates the interplay between foreign and domestic disinformers, specifically the critical role elected officials and American media play in narratives gaining traction. Although this story thread began with Tucker Carlson, an American media personality, it might also lend credibility to other Kremlin-aligned narratives that sow mistrust in government and political opponents.
A long-standing trend found with far-right media among key conservative political figures and foreign disinformants has been an increasing intolerance for those who hold different views. The antagonism is a continuation of what House Intelligence investigations found in 2017. This conclusion was reaffirmed by the bipartisan “Rubio Report,” a nearly 1000-page report detailing Russian efforts to influence US politics.
In the case of the Tucker Carlson-NSA claim key amplifiers of the story were:
- US elected officials,
- media outlets from the US,
- prominent conspiracy theorists[5 ], and
- foreign disinformation operations.
These sources created an ecosystem where conservatives were unlikely to be unaware of it. All parties amplified the same questionable narrative, ranging from outright false claims to the just-asking-questions style inquiry from US elected officials. The letter authors should have identified key issues with the story and explored alternate explanations, so the swift acceptance and demands for an investigation beg questions about intent.
We cannot assess intention with any accuracy at this point, but this particular story could potentially:
- increase mistrust about the findings of any investigation into the Jan 6th attack on the US Capitol, which may have involved members of Congress,
- cast doubt on serious allegations of sex trafficking of minors by Rep. Matt Gaetz,
- stoke paranoia and fear, which may leave people less able to assess claims about censorship and persecution critically, and,
- promote violence in the future by creating the perception of a serious threat,
Note that this does not assert or imply this is the intention of those amplifying the claims, but these are possible consequences regardless.
Russia, Iran, and China
We screened State-controlled and diplomatic Twitter accounts from China, Iran, and Russia for mentions of “Tucker Carlson” and “NSA.” Russian accounts mentioned and promoted Tucker Carlson’s claims in 9 Tweets, by far the most mentions of the three. These came from Kremlin-controlled outlets like RT France and Sputnik International, an English-language outlet covering international news.
Both RT and Sputnik intermittently feature disinformation mixed in with mostly credible reporting, which lends believability to the outlets’ claims. Iran-linked accounts mentioned the story once, and China has not tweeted on this subject, although the Chinese-state-controlled media and persons frequently comment on US surveillance systems.
Totals mentions as of 7/2/2021
- Russia: 9
- Iran: 1
- China: 0
Narratives Amplified via Telegram
Before the Tucker Carlson claims, we saw coordinated amplification of a surveillance-related narrative. That could or could not be related but would only have made Carlson’s claims more believable either way.
Messaging patterns strongly suggestive of an association
Messaging Timeline from Popular Conservative Channels
Conspiracy theorists, foreign-state controlled disinformation operations, US elected officials, and American media personalities all boosted the same story of questionable credibility. It’s an alignment that is concerning and a vulnerability that could conceivably be weaponized against the United States.
Elected Officials Amplifying Carlson’s Claims
Conservative politicians have commented publicly related to Tucker Carlson’s claims that the NSA is spying on him. The NSA took the exceptional step of countering the claims, stating that it is not and has never surveilled Carlson.
As evidence to support his claims, Carlson cites a person who contacted him about his recent text messages, which he claimed contained show material. Carlson never presented proof that the evidence exists.
Two other explanations have not been addressed by sources amplifying the claims:
- Someone could have hacked Carlson’s phone
- Carlson could have fabricated the story.
Carlson fought prior lawsuits with the defense that no reasonable person would believe him. That defense itself explicitly hinged on his lack of credibility. Even so, elected officials in the US have made a swift, public statements regarding Carlson’s claims, discrediting his prior defense.
The GOP Judiciary Twitter account has clearly taken his words seriously. Given that representation for Tucker Carlson’s show has discredited him in the court of law, what then substantiates the claims?
The GOP Judiciary account has also re-tweeted the Washington Times article about Carlson’s claims. The outlet was founded by the founder of the Moon Cult, who sought to influence powerful leaders in the US.
Recently, Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence headlined alongside Cambodia's violent and anti-democratic dictator at an event hosted by the Moon Cult.
The “Moonies,” as they are informally known, have been accumulating power in the US since the 80’s when they first caused concern.
American Networks of Disinformation
Networks of websites or accounts on Facebook manipulate the platform's algorithm regularly in a way that violates the Facebook policy on inauthentic activity. There are at least three instances where the disinformation from Carlson reached as many as 16 million Facebook users thanks to coordinated activity increasing distribution.
Full data sets from this report are available: Report Data
The inaccuracies almost always serve a far-right worldview with inaccurate or misleading representations of alternate views, most often those of Democrats, though not exclusively.
Networks of websites shared misleading stories about Tucker Carlson and the NSA.
Zero Hedge is a known Kremlin amplifier19]. Repeatedly, the timestamps for posts on the website Censored.News and Zero Hedge have been identical, suggesting that the same person or group may publish for or control both.
Another Russia-associated outlet appeared in the disinformation networks: Southfront. Southfront is an FSB-linked disinformation source that writes about global geopolitical affairs.
In some cases, the reposted content was shared broadly by overlapping networks shown below.
Sons of Liberty Media and The Washington Standard may be controlled by the same person or group, much like Zero Hedge. Below we see Censored.News and Zero Hedge duplicate posting, and we also see the same from Sons of Liberty Media and The Washington Standard. In this case, Zero Hedge was not the first poster. That was Blacklisted.News.
Rense and Waking Times post closely together. In the duplicate series below, we see InfoWars is the first, with Counter Information WordPress following closely behind with Zero Hedge and Censored.News.
Similar dynamics appear with the article Total Tyranny.
Unz writer Michelle Malkin has spread disinformation about vaccines and Dr. Anthony Fauci most recently. Malkin posts to Unz and her website at the same time, almost always. Unz is a recognized amplifier of Kremlin narratives. That Malkin published the content first before it was amplified by Zero Hedge, another pro-Kremlin entity, follows a pattern where Russia has switched from creating content from scratch and elevated the fringes.
The reasons may be visible in the media bias chart, which shows that Sputnik and RT are both more reliable and less partisan than many of the far-right media outlets online. It supports the belief that amplifying Americans improves the efficacy of the disinformation efforts. US citizens are more accepting of other American voices, and this may be why these outlets have less reliability and more partisan bias.
It speaks to why information laundering is so dangerous. We saw vaccine disinformation laundered in early 2020 with a story traveling from Ria Novosti to US media outlets in a day.
Zero Hedge, New York Post, Gateway Pundit, and the Epoch Times all re-published the vaccine disinformation. US readers would likely have been in the dark about the content’s origin, showing the critical role that US-based outlets and people play in foreign disinformation campaigns.
US citizens also come with speech protections, which limits the US government’s ability to stop the flow of disinformation. The government might have more options against actual Russian agents.