In an upscale condo in Old Montreal owned by a retired University of Ottawa professor sits the headquarters of a website that is now in the sights of NATO's Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, as it investigates, among other things, the online spread of pro-Russia propaganda and of disinformation that props up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The website, globalresearch.ca, is ostensibly the online arm of the Centre for Research on Globalization, which has the trappings of a think tank and styles some of its regular contributors as "senior fellows." But it is the media that matters: Its online content and its amplification on social media form the core of its activities.
The site has posted more than 40,000 of its own pieces since it was launched in 2001, according to one long-time contributor. But it does more: It picks up reports from other, often obscure websites, thus giving them a Global Research link. Those reports often get cross-posted on a series of other sites or aggressively spread across Facebook and Twitter by followers who actively share or retweet them, including a number of social botnets, or bots – automated accounts programmed to spread certain globalresearch.ca content.
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The site has disseminated articles that claimed the Assad regime was not behind the April chemical weapon attack that drew a punitive U.S. missile strike, also suggesting it was a hoax and that the deadly nerve agent sarin was not used. It spread other false reports, such as a claim that NATO was preparing to deploy 3,600 tanks near the Russian border as part of a mission to Eastern Europe.
The site initially drew attention for claiming that the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States were a false-flag operation orchestrated by the CIA.
But what once appeared to be a relatively harmless online refuge for conspiracy theorists is now seen by NATO's information warfare specialists as a link in a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of mainstream Western media – as well as the North American and European public's trust in government and public institutions.
The spread of online disinformation had become a heated political concern amid U.S. intelligence reports that Russia sought to use it to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In May, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland warned that such tactics could be used here. On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of seeking to "weaponize information." In October, Facebook released a sampling of political ads bought by Russians that were aimed at U.S. audiences – many were not about candidates but sought to gin up divisions, including ads that supported and attacked the anti-racism movement Black Lives Matter.
Global Research is viewed by NATO's Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence – or StratCom – as playing a key accelerant role in helping popularize articles with little basis in fact that also happen to fit the narratives being pushed by the Kremlin, in particular, and the Assad regime.
At its headquarters in Riga, StratCom researchers consider globalresearch.ca to be a link in a network that reposts such stories. "That way, they increase the Google ranking of the story and create the illusion of multisource verification," said Donara Barojan, who does digital forensic research for the centre. But she said she did not yet have proof that Global Research is connected to any government.
The site's founder, Michel Chossudovsky, has long been an iconoclast, a leftist University of Ottawa economics professor who challenges mainstream capitalist economics. Locally, he gained brief notoriety when his theories of Israeli cabals sparked allegations of anti-Semitism. His site, globalresearch.ca, tends to view the United States as a militaristic aggressor and NATO as its warmongering tool – views also promoted by Russia. It also asserts the United States is behind extremists such as the Islamic State and its allies, a view promoted by the Assad regime.
So is globalresearch.ca just an outlet for views that happen to align with those of the Kremlin and Damascus? Or is it affiliated?
Mr. Chossudovsky didn't want to discuss that. He has spoken occasionally to reporters over the years to expound his political theories, but when The Globe and Mail went to his waterfront home in L'Île-Cadieux, Que., in May, he declined to speak about how globalresearch.ca functions and whether it is aligned with Moscow or any other government.
"Not on that topic," he said, insisting "it would not be appropriate," without explaining further. He then said he had an appointment and had to go.
This week, after The Globe made another attempt to ask questions about the website, Mr. Chossudovsky responded through a lawyer, Daniel Lévesque. In a letter, Mr. Lévesque said the Centre for Research on Globalization denies that it is part of a network of pro-Russia or pro-Assad sites or that it is "affiliated with governmental organizations or benefits from their support."
Global Research has from the beginning espoused conspiracy theories, including that the United States and its allies continue to support and fund Islamist extremists, including al-Qaeda and IS, and has taken the view that the U.S.-led NATO alliance is fomenting war around the world. But it took on those themes long before it was common to accuse Mr. Putin of mounting a disinformation war.
Global Research has developed unusual reach for a site that specializes in conspiracy-heavy anti-Western articles on international relations.
It uses that reach to push not only its own opinion pieces, but "news" reports from little-known websites that regularly carry dubious or false information. At times, the site's regular variety of international-affairs stories is replaced with a flurry of items that bolster dubious reportage with a series of opinion pieces, promoted on social media and retweeted and shared by active bots.
The Global Research site is prolific, and of course the editors don't necessarily agree with all the content that is posted.
In the case of the April 4 sarin-gas attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed more than 80 people – and which sparked U.S. President Donald Trump to order a cruise-missile strike on the Syrian air base from which the attack was launched – globalresearch.ca was among the first to carry a story that claimed the Syrian regime was innocent of the attack and that terrorists hoping to lure the United States into the war against Mr. al-Assad were to blame.
The article first appeared in al-Masdar News, a pro-Assad website that appears to be run from Beirut. It was written by Paul Antonopoulos, who now writes for the pro-Russia Fort Russ news portal. But after globalresearch.ca republished the same article word for word, it rippled out widely through the internet. Global Research's Facebook counter shows it was shared more than 6,000 times. On Twitter, it was mentioned hundreds of times. The article's assertions were soon quoted in or republished by a dozen other outlets identified by StratCom as either "pro-Kremlin or anti-Western." Among them was the influential InfoWars website, which is widely read among the so-called "alt-right" movement – a loose confederation of U.S. white supremacists and nativists – that supported Mr. Trump's run for the White House. The hashtag #syriahoax began trending on Twitter.
The al-Masdar article repeated the Syrian government's claim that it has no chemical weapons. It suggested "terrorist forces have once again created a false flag scenario," asserting the casualties could not have been caused by sarin gas, as was believed, because photographs showed rescue workers without gloves near the bodies of the victims, and that "local sources" said the bodies were those of people kidnapped by al-Qaeda a week earlier. Alternatively, it stated, the deaths might have been the result of the Syrian air force bombing a warehouse where the local al-Qaeda affiliate had been manufacturing chemical weapons.
The latter is the version of events the Kremlin has been advancing, although a reporter from Britain's The Guardian newspaper who visited Khan Sheikhoun two days after the attack found that the building Moscow identified as a chemical-weapons warehouse was only "half-destroyed silos reeking of leftover grain and animal manure."
The United States says it has satellite evidence showing the Syrian air force deliberately carried out the chemical attack on the town. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has charged that Russia either knew of or was willfully blind about the attack. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in The Hague, found that sarin was indeed used in the attack. In September, a UN commission of inquiry reported that Syria's military was responsible.
The Khan Sheikhoun story was an example of globalresearch.ca amplifying a story from an obscure source. Janis Sarts, the director of StratCom, said globalresearch.ca repeatedly played a role in disseminating "disinformation" by giving pro-Russia and pro-Assad stories a wider audience and a veneer of credibility by publishing them through an authoritative-sounding Canadian source.
He said it would be "very difficult" for larger news organizations such as Russian and Iranian state news agencies to pick up an article from an obscure source such as al-Masdar, but when it is circulated through Global Research, "then they say, 'Oh! In the West they're saying this!'"
Unlike al-Masdar News, which Mr. Sarts said had a limited reach, globalresearch.ca claims to have more than 2.7 million unique visitors a month.
Among the 25,000 accounts that follow the Centre for Research on Globalization on Twitter are Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian embassy in Canada and the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin think tank.
It is not only a site that reposts articles from little-known sites for its wider readership. It pushes the narrative. In the case of the sarin attack, it quickly supplemented the al-Masdar hoax story with a series of articles and opinion pieces that took the false flag and mistaken-blame narrative for granted – both before and after the April 7 U.S. missile strikes.
In the week after Khan Sheikhoun, the 10 most-tweeted globalresearch.ca articles were about the gas attack, according to social-media analytics tools. In addition to the al-Masdar story, they included a piece with the headline, Did Hillary approve sending sarin to rebels?, and several that argued the attack was a false flag to justify a regime change operation.
They were spread on Twitter by a mix of far-right, alt-left and anarchist groups – and bots. In fact, this is now a feature of globalresearch.ca's reach: It is being aggressively amplified by Twitter users pushing its content, including automated accounts. Because Twitter allows users anonymity, it's hard to say with certainty which accounts are bots, but some exhibit the hallmarks of automation, such as excessively heavy tweeting or a high percentage of retweets.
The now-suspended account @YOUNGFiREBRAND, which uses the name "God's Lion," appeared to take a fire-and-brimstone view of the world and mentioned globalresearch.ca more than 700 times the week after the Khan Sheikhoun attack. Another prolific retweeter, @Col_Connaughton, is a virulently anti-Israel, pro-Iran account that tweets more than a human can: Its 1.5 million tweets amount to 600 a day, every day, for seven years.
The account @elzi0n, whose Twitter bio claims he is Australian and, among other things, a truth-seeker, activist and hip-hop purist, is a heavy retweeter of globalresearch.ca stories. The account has 182,000 followers, but many, if not most, are automated corporate or PR accounts that makes @elzi0n look more influential than it is. Its tweets are rarely its own. Mostly it retweets posts and stories from other sources, especially RT – the state-funded TV and online service formerly called Russia Today – British conspiracy blogger David Icke and Global Research.
And then there is cross-posting. Global Research frequently republishes articles that first appeared on RT or the Kremlin-run Sputnik news agency, which also frequently quotes Mr. Chossudovsky as a source. And it gives content from obscure sites exposure.
"There's this whole system of cross-posting articles, where you generate views for another website and you start doing favours," said Guillaume Kress, who worked as an editorial assistant at Global Research. "I don't know much about the system itself, but it's very, very interesting."
Mr. Chossudovsky is treated as an esteemed researcher when he appears on RT and its op-ed website, which carries a bio that calls him "an award-winning author, professor of economics (emeritus) at the University of Ottawa, founder and director of the Centre for Research on Globalization."
Other writers for the site are similarly lionized by RT. F. Willam Engdahl, whose writing includes reports that the CIA is behind pro-democracy movements in Hungary and that genetically modified organisms are part of a conspiracy designed just after the Second World War to control the world's food supply, has written for publications of the conspiracy-minded Lyndon LaRouche political movement, which sees Prince Charles as the leader of an evil international plot, and for Global Research. His RT bio calls him "an award-winning geopolitical analyst and strategic risk consultant" and a "Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal."
Among globalresearch.ca's listed "partner websites" is the Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation, known for promoting the Kremlin narrative that the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was a Western-backed coup d'état rather than a popular revolution. Its contributors include pro-Russian authors such as Andrew Korybko, a former journalist with Sputnik who now works for pro-Russian think tank Katehon, and Jerome Corsi, now the Washington bureau chief for the U.S. conspiracy site InfoWars.
It is clear that Global Research is in some sense now part of an online network. What's not clear is whether Mr. Chossudovsky's site is trying to amplify the views of the Kremlin and the Assad regime or whether his views are being amplified by pro-Russia, pro-Assad networks who favour globalresearch.ca's storylines.
Mr. Kress, who started working for Global Research as a kind of intern just after graduating from Concordia University, quickly became a paid employee who woke early every day, including weekends, to post stories. He believes it is the latter – that Global Research's political leanings mean its content is "in line with Russian media in general.
"It shouldn't be surprising to anyone, given what the big themes are for Global Research. I mean, anti-U.S., NATO," he said. "That kind of sounds like Russia to me."
Tracing firm links is difficult. Those Facebook ads were linked to Russian operatives, not a direct Kremlin purchase. Russian state news sites such as RT and Sputnik have overt links to Moscow. There are sites with less direct links, such as The Duran, whose founders include former RT pundits. But there are also a number of alternative sites that regularly post views in line with Moscow's but assert they are independent. Sites such as ProporNot.com, which identify what they believe to be Russian propaganda sites – including globalresearch.ca – have led to counterallegations that there is a McCarthyist attempt to marginalize their politics.
Phil Butler, a Sputnik International blogger, published a book called Putin's Praetorians: Confessions of the Top Kremlin Trolls, in which pro-Russia writers such as Global Research's Mr. Engdahl try to debunk the notion of Kremlin-backed propaganda, all the while "confessing" the reasons they admire Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Chossudovsky and his wife, retired CEGEP teacher Micheline Ladouceur, who edits the French-language version of the site, appear to have begun with a handful of contributors. Some were other retired academics, often writing opinions on matters outside their fields – usually sympathizers with the anti-capitalist or anti-war leanings of the site.
Mr. Kress, now a business student in France, said he was looking to do some form of writing or journalism after graduating from Concordia and answered a Global Research ad. He ended up working there for eight months, eventually finding the site's "heavy" content stressful. He became frustrated that it didn't really have, in his view, a consistent voice or a coherent theory, but he said he believes that Mr. Chossudovsky believes in what he's doing.
The site, according to Mr. Kress, is operated by a small support staff, with the articles chosen by Mr. Chossudovsky from other sites or contributors who submit articles in a "constant inflow" from around the world. Mr. Kress said it's a "small organization" but didn't want to say how many people work for Global Research or talk about them. He did not explain why. He said he worked from home, posting articles using the open source software WordPress, but did not say if others worked from Mr. Chossudovsky's L'Île-Cadieux home, a wooded property with an assessed value of $1.1-million, or his Old Montreal condo.
The size of the organization is surprisingly hard to discern, especially since Mr. Chossudovsky did not want to discuss it. The website lists "research associates" and "correspondents," who are essentially its regular contributors, and a group of four or five editors and administrators. In addition to Mr. Chossudovsky and his wife, there is an office manager, Alex Vlaanderen, and typically one or two others. For a year, Mr. Kress was listed as a "consultant."
He said the site has revenue from ads and believed it may also benefit financially from cross-posting content from other sites, but he did not know. The site's web traffic helps it earn revenue from display ads through online ad resellers.
But it appears Global Research's traffic was hit by Google's efforts to reduce the "viral" impact of fake news and purveyors of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. The site touts itself as one of the 15,000 most-visited in the world, according to Alexa, a web-traffic analytics site; but by November, Alexa said it was not even in the top 24,000.
(Some sites have complained that Google's search-engine change has also hit the traffic of left-wing websites that aren't known for spreading false information. For instance, the World Socialist Web Site, a Trotskyite site, complained in July that its traffic had plummeted after Google's changes.)
In October, Mr. Chossudovsky made an online appeal for help. Global Research, he said, "is facing financial difficulties.
"To reverse the Tide of Media Disinformation, we Need your Support."
Jules Dufour, a former university geography professor in Saguenay, Que., was one of Mr. Chossudovsky's longest-serving contributors. Before he died in August, he told The Globe and Mail in an interview that he was an anti-war activist who saw globalresearch.ca as having a mission to "denounce lies," notably about conflicts.
What about its conspiracy theories? "Well, there are certainly conspiracies. History demonstrates it," Mr. Dufour said. The justification for going to war with Saddam Hussein was false, he said, and so was the assertion that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Mr. Dufour didn't seem very worried that Global Research was spreading false information from obscure sources, either. "There may be things like that, but it's hard to control everything," he said.
The false information is not limited to topics that fit the site's purported international-relations mission. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, globalresearch.ca published a piece by a Florida anesthesiologist who claimed that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had Parkinson's disease – a claim that was circulated on far right and pro-Russia conspiracy sites and repeated by Trump supporters until it was mooted in mainstream tabloids and debunked by fact-checking site Snopes and physicians with knowledge of the disease.
StratCom first took note of globalresearch.ca in January, when it was the first website to republish an article – originally carried by the Donbass International News Agency, a pro-Kremlin news service that operates out of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine – alleging that the United States had 3,600 tanks ready to deploy near the Russian border as part of a NATO mission.
The real number of tanks deployed to Poland and the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia under Operation Atlantic Resolve was 87.
Despite the dubious nature of the source and the easily checked facts (the United States only has 8,848 tanks worldwide), globalresearch.ca carried the Donbass story verbatim, with Mr. Chossudovsky penning an introduction hypothesizing that the large military buildup could be departing U.S. president Barack Obama's retribution for Russia's alleged hacking attacks during the U.S. election.
The article then spread through some of the same websites that republished the Syria hoax story, before a toned-down version of the tale – mentioning 200 U.S. tanks – appeared on the RT website.
"What we found was that Global Research was essential in getting the '3,600 tanks' story more mainstream attention. Once it was picked up by them, it was picked up by their network of loyal allies," said StratCom's Ms. Barojan, who also does digital research for the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-government-affiliated think tank.
Mr. Kress said he thought Mr. Chossudovsky believed in his site's mission, but he clearly liked it when Global Research content went viral.
"He asked me to clickbait," Mr. Kress said.
The young editorial assistant used the internet to put together a piece that claimed the Rockefeller Foundation had patented the Zika virus – when, in fact, researchers for the foundation had merely deposited a strain of the virus with an organization that preserves micro-organisms for research. But Mr. Kress's piece "blew up the internet," in his words, spreading around a series of sites, including InfoWars.
"It was just something I did, kind of like, in my room at 1 a.m., because I noticed something on some other – I checked the Zika virus website and just kind of copy-pasted what I saw there and put quotes and linked my article to it. And basically, yeah, it worked. But he liked that. And I didn't really like it – deep down."
Campbell Clark is chief political writer with The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's senior international correspondent.