In some cases, professional-journalist reporting has uncovered interesting connections between outlets which we have identified, through our multiple overlapping checks and analyses, as Russian propaganda. Take, for example, ZeroHedge.com. Targeted at Wall St. professionals and people interested in the finance sector, it is now the 407th most-popular site in the United States (according to Alexa.com), with 18.7m monthly page views in the U.S., averaging roughly 8 minutes a visit (according to SimilarWeb.com). It is one of the top finance-industry news sources for American audiences, and was rated as one of the top ten most popular financial blogs in the U.S. by Time Magazine.
ZeroHedge.com makes an excellent case study, both because of how quickly it rose to prominence, and because it was spectacularly eviscerated by its primary ghost-writer after a falling-out with his employers in April of 2016.
ZeroHedge was established as a blog in 2009, and rapidly grew into an internet success story with an extensive reach on social media and its own YouTube channel. Its “author” wrote under the pen-name of Tyler Durden in a heavy-handed homage to Fight Club, and his opinions were frequently anti-establishment and notedly pessimistic. The site found a large audience among Americans who were searching for answers about a financial system that had suddenly and disastrously run off the road.
On the face of it, ZeroHedge’s articles were always a perplexing mix of solid financial news and frankly sensational articles that headed straight for conspiracy-theory territory—an odd combination for a financial website. The real identity of its author was hotly debated, as was the veracity of many of its claims. ZeroHedge frequently argued that “pseudonymous speech” was necessary amid an atmosphere of stifled public dissent, but it also made it nearly impossible to trace the source of some of the articles it published.
The ZeroHedge.com homepage, sans ads, as of October 23rd 2016
New York Magazine ran an extensive profile of the site, titled The Dow Zero Insurgency, in September 2009, doing some research into the site’s apparent founder, Daniel Ivandjiiski, and including this comment about Zerohedge’s tone:
“It’s nihilist, and that kind of vision lends itself to all manner of overreaching and conspiracy,” says Felix Salmon of Reuters. “You need some kind of critical judgment to separate out the [stories] that make sense and the ones that don’t. ZeroHedge just seems to not care about that. It doesn’t matter if it’s not true.”
In November 2011, the Streetwise Professor blog did some excellent digging, and is to our knowledge the first time a writer systematically compared ZeroHedge to Russia Today/RT:
‘ZH’s editorial line on the US and European economies parallels almost exactly that of RT. Moreover, although ZH is unsparing in its criticism of virtually every Western government leader, it never whispers the slightest word of reproach about Vladimir Putin or Russia. Indeed, a tweet mentioning that fact almost immediately drew a response from ZH: a link to a ZH piece spouting a common line of Russian propaganda argument about the superior fiscal foundation of Russia as compared to the US.’
At PropOrNot, our research and content analysis has confirmed that that seems to be the case. The Streetwise Professor story goes on to make the connection that the the father of Zerohedge’s founder appears to have been a Bulgarian intelligence officer during the Cold War:
‘Its creator is Daniel Ivandjiiski, a native of Bulgaria. Daniel has a very dodgy past, including losing a job and his securities license for insider trading. None of this is hard to find out: it was covered in a New York Magazine piece that ran soon after ZH first gained notoriety. Mr. Ivandjiiski’s checkered past perhaps explains his clearcut antipathy for Wall Street. But there may be more to it than that. In light of my flash analogy of ZH to a Soviet disinformation operation, what is really interesting is the background of Daniel Ivandjiiski’s father. Ivandjiiski pere (Kassimir) was a Bulgarian “journalist” and “envoy” during the Cold War. A member of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Trade, in the COMECON and EU departments. A journalist. A “special envoy” (hence presumably with very useful diplomatic cover) in every proxy war in Central Asia and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. That is an intel operative’s CV with probability 1. Probability 1. Every one of those jobs was a classic cover. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever—none—that Mr. Divandjiiski senior was a member of the Bulgarian Committee for State Security (Държавна сигурност or DS for short)—the Bulgarian equivalent of the KGB. And remember that Bulgarian DS was the USSR KGB’s most reliable allied service during the Cold War. It carried out wet work in western countries, notably the “umbrella murder” of Georgi Markov in London... Perhaps it is just coincidence that the son of an obvious Warsaw Pact intelligence service agent with the “journalistic” and “diplomatic” background commonly used in influence and disinformation operations starts a website that employs classic influence and disinformation methods, and spouts an editorial line dripping with vitriol and hostility for American (and Western European) financial institutions and governments: a line that follows that of RT quite closely. Perhaps.’
Three years later, in November 2014, the Streetwise Professor Blog ran a followup story about Zerohedge, called How Do You Know That ZeroHedge is a Russian Information Operation? Here’s How, which analyzed a particularly egregious case in which ZeroHedge echoed a deeply misleading story on an obscure Russian-language website, Iskra News, blaming the U.S. for Ukrainian gold going missing from the central-bank vault:
‘Shortly after Yatsenuk [the Ukrainian prime minister] disclosed the theft of the gold, stories started appearing on the web, first on a Russian website, claiming that the gold had been spirited out the country: including on ZH, which quoted the Russian web story. This obviously serves a Russian purpose: it presents a counter-narrative that blames the theft of the gold not on Yanukovych [the Russian-backed former President], or the Russians, but on the new Ukrainian government and the United States.
This is the classic Soviet/Russian agitprop MO that I noted 3 years ago. A story appears in an obscure publication, typically outside the US or Europe, where it has been planted by Soviet/Russian intelligence. It is then picked up by another, more widely read publication, in Europe or the West. Maybe it works its way through several additional media sources. It then gets disseminated more widely in the west, sometimes making it to prestige publications like the NYT.
In the era of the web, the information weapon needn’t make it that far. Getting into a widely-read web publication like ZeroHedge which is then linked by numerous other sources and tweeted widely ensures that the lie goes viral.
ZH is an important transmission belt moving the story from Russian propagandists/information warriors to western news consumers. It happens a lot. This is a particularly egregious example, but the transmission belt runs almost daily. ZH is as much a part of Putin’s information warfare as RT. If you follow closely enough, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.’
Then, in April 2016, Bloomberg ran a story called Unmasking the Men Behind ZeroHedge, Wall Street's Renegade Blog, which extensively quoted a disgruntled former employee of Zerohedge named Colin Lokey, who described “writing as many as 15 posts a day of as many as 1,500 words each”. The side was indeed run by Daniel Ivandjiiski, the Bulgarian-born former analyst who was barred by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority in 2008 for insider trading, and Tim Backshall, a credit derivatives strategist who frequently appears on the news as a financial expert. Both men were financially well-situated, and chat logs given to Bloomberg indicate that Lokey, who was being paid upwards of $100,000 a year to produce content, was increasingly uneasy about the hypocrisy of purporting to be fighting for the common man while pushing a very specific editorial line:
‘Lokey, who said he wrote much of the site’s political content, claimed there was pressure to frame issues in a way he felt was disingenuous. “I tried to inject as much truth as I could into my posts, but there’s no room for it. “Russia=good. Obama=idiot. Bashar al-Assad=benevolent leader. John Kerry=dunce. Vladimir Putin=greatest leader in the history of statecraft,” Lokey wrote, describing his take on the website's politics...
“I can’t be a 24-hour cheerleader for Hezbollah, Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, and Trump anymore. It’ s wrong. Period. I know it gets you views now, but it will kill your brand over the long run,” Lokey texted Ivandjiiski. “This isn’t a revolution. It’s a joke.”’
Meanwhile, in February 2016, Andrew Aaron Weisburd’s blog Aktivnyye Meropriyatiya|Active Measures published an analysis of SimilarWeb referrer data, highlighting ZeroHedge, and building out a network graph of sites which refer their audience to each other, titled The Fringes of Disinfo: A Network Based on Referrers. Later in February 2016, he posted Disinformation Flows - A Second Look, in which he focused down the core referrer network surrounding ZeroHedge:
ZeroHedge.com referrer network (illustration by Andrew Aaron Weisburd)
Weisburd then went on to drill down into the subset of the referrer network subset of the network which included sites that had been flagged on Twitter by the @EUvsDisinfo team as propagating Kremlin disinformation. The @EUvsDisinfo account is a project of the European Union’s East Strategic Communications Task Force, and does excellent work, which we at PropOrNot are also using to inform our efforts.
Weisburd’s network next graph just included the sites identified by EUvsDisinfo, with the ones in ZeroHedge’s core referral network highlighted in blue:
ZeroHedge.com referrer network focused on sites identified as disinformation by @EUvsDisinfo (illustration by Andrew Aaron Weisburd)
We have systematically confirmed the EUvsDisinfo/Weisburd findings in this case. Weisburd’s comment from that post bears repeating here:
‘To the extent any of these sites are involved in supporting Russian objectives that run counter to Western interests, they - and more to the point, the people who operate them - should be of interest to the security services of the Western countries in which they live, work, and acquire services related to their websites. At the same time, one frequently finds direct links from these websites to Russia and individuals in Russia clearly associated with the Kremlin and Russian intelligence services. It is always worthwhile to look for criminal activity occurring on the periphery of such websites, particularly on the backend of the operations, involving people who host the sites, register the domain names, and otherwise provide logistical support. And finally, many sites involved in Kremlin disinformation work now solicit donations online, raising the distinct possibility that the online fundraising accounts are being used to move or launder funds.’
Ivandjiiski has publicly stated that the site has turned a profit from ad revenue since day one, and that they have never taken outside funding, which does not preclude ad buys being used to channel funds to the site. In a world where traffic and clicks are synonymous with money, the traditional goal of propaganda—influencing as many people as possible—becomes indistinguishable from the profit motive. A successful information operation would almost certainly reach enough people to be self-financed.
And that is where things get interesting from our perspective here at Propaganda or Not, because ZeroHedge’s opinions align nearly perfectly with those of Russia’s official propaganda outlets.
ZeroHedge consistently cites the Russian defense ministry and Russian outlets such as Russia Today/RT, and that coverage is notably slanted towards Russia. Russian claims of Western aggression are given greater weight than competing claims of Russian bellicosity, and ZeroHedge hews to the Russia version of events in Crimea, Syria, and elsewhere. It’s pretty evident to even a casual reader that the site’s coverage is heavily pro-Russian. ZeroHedge is also anti-GMO, and has a frankly weird obsession with the gold standard - both of which common themes in Russian propaganda.
Are ZeroHedge’s owners driven primarily by profit, and their alignment with Russian propaganda merely the result of catering to their readers’ pre-existing prejudices?
One consideration is that the site’s contents do not seem to align with the prejudices of its audience. There is no reason, ipso facto, why day traders would also be wary of GMOs, or especially interested in the Syrian Civil War. Articles from ZeroHedge are frequently reposted by other sites, but appear on ZeroHedge first — the site’s authors are driving and shaping the stories, not merely reacting to them. An analysis of web traffic patterns and linking backs this up: ZeroHedge has a prominent place within the network of pro-Russia news and propaganda outlets.
On final analysis, ZeroHedge hews far too closely to the Russian propaganda line for their slant to be accidental. In one sense, that doesn’t matter. Whether for money or out of ideological affinity, the end results of echoing Russian propaganda are the same, regardless of motivation. In another sense, however, motivation matters because it determines what kind of response is appropriate, and what kind of response is likely to work.
ZeroHedge qualifies as “dark gray” propaganda, systematically deceiving its civilian audiences for foreign political gain. We at PropOrNot rate it: Five Shadies.