As U.S. authorities guard against dirty tricks from foreign adversaries in the run-up to the Nov. 3 presidential election, an unlikely source has come under new scrutiny as a major conduit of Russian-linked disinformation: a Montreal-based website run by a retired University of Ottawa professor.
The platform, Global Research, features a Canadian domain name and offers an ever-expanding collection of conspiracy theories, such as the myth that the 9/11 attacks and COVID-19 pandemic were both planned in order to control the population. The website also hosts articles experts have attributed to a Russian spy agency.
With more than 275,000 Facebook followers and a potential readership in excess of 350,000 per article, the U.S. State Department has identified the site as having the single-biggest reach among “Kremlin-aligned” disinformation sites.
“This is part of a larger effort to sow disarray and distrust within Western democracies,” said James Andrew Lewis, a senior researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. intelligence agencies found Russian state actors mounted a multi-faceted assault before the 2016 U.S. election in an effort to undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and bolster Donald Trump’s odds of winning. They say the operation involved spreading false claims and amplifying divisive debates within American society online.
Russia was “so successful in 2016, I’m sure they’ll try the same thing again in 2020,” Lewis said, “and this website is part of that effort.”
Michel Chossudovsky, the University of Ottawa professor emeritus of economics who runs the site, told CBC News through a lawyer that his platform is not a Russian-aligned disinformation site and urged a reporter not to embark on a “witch hunt.” In an email, the lawyer also said his client would not agree to an interview.
The FBI has identified such proxy sites as one of the main tools used by Russia this year to sow discord and denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told a congressional committee in September that the agency has again observed “very active efforts” by Russia to affect the election through “malign foreign influence,” including the use of social media, state media and proxies.
Experts say the Canadian-based website fits into the broad network used by Russia to attain its objectives, but also say it is unknown whether there is any co-ordination with Moscow.
A collection of conspiracy theories
Since 2001, Global Research has acted as the online component of the Centre for Research on Globalization, a self-styled “independent research and media organization” run by Chossudovsky.
Along with more than 40 “research associates” and writers, the website lists a post office box within a convenience store as its mailing address, just down the street from Montreal City Hall.
Chossudovsky, a frequent guest on the Russian state TV network RT, serves as the site’s editor and is one of its main contributors. He has regularly questioned the seriousness of COVID-19, recently labelling it a “manufactured pandemic.”
Disinformation researchers have previously singled out Russia and China as drivers of coronavirus conspiracy theories. One of Global Research’s articles, featuring the unsubstantiated claim that the virus first came from a U.S. source, was tweeted in March by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman and later deleted.
Marcus Kolga, founder of the website DisinfoWatch, said platforms like Global Research give outlandish narratives “an air of legitimacy that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” what’s known as “information laundering.”
WATCH | Disinformation researcher says sites like this help legitimize outlandish theories:
On Tuesday, for example, Global Research posted a piece underscoring Joe Biden’s unproven “cognitive decline.” The same article also warned of “the imminent danger of a Kamala Harris presidency,” suggesting that as a prosecutor, she disproportionately jailed Black men because of a vendetta against her Jamaican-American father.
The website has also published articles sympathetic to the Russian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other pieces critical of NATO, the Western alliance that has sought to contain Moscow’s aggression.
The Globe and Mail reported in 2017 that Global Research had become the target of an investigation by NATO’s information warfare specialists, who suspected the site was playing a role in amplifying Russian-aligned narratives with little basis in fact.
‘No other outlet had half as much reach’
This year, a U.S. State Department report identified Global Research as being part of a network of proxy sites that, while having no visible ties to Moscow, “serve no other purpose but to push pro-Kremlin content.”
“It provides plausible deniability for Kremlin officials when proxy sites peddle blatant and dangerous disinformation, allowing them to deflect criticism while still introducing pernicious information,” reads the report, published by the State Department’s anti-foreign propaganda arm, the Global Engagement Center.
Based on analysis of web traffic on seven such sites from February to April of this year, the report pointed to the Canadian-based platform as the Kremlin-aligned disinformation site with the biggest potential audience. “At more than 350,000 potential readers per article, no other outlet had half as much reach as Global Research,” it said.
Kolga, who is also a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think-tank, said it’s hard to contain disinformation once it’s posted on such websites and then shared by users on social media — especially on less regulated message boards such as 4Chan and in groups of QAnon believers.
What’s more, Kolga said, is that when the main voice of a disinformation website is tied to a respected university, “it makes it believable. That is the problem here.”
One-time colleagues distance themselves
Chossudovsky’s CV says he joined the University of Ottawa’s economics department in 1968 and was promoted to the rank of full professor in 1979. In 2001, the faculty of social sciences granted him its Excellence in Teaching Award for “outstanding performance.” The university’s website still lists him as professor emeritus.
Two other U of O professors, Marcel Mérette and Yazid Dissou, who appear alongside Chossudovsky in a 2014 picture on his website, said they weren’t aware the photo was being used in that way until a CBC reporter brought it to their attention. Both sought to distance themselves from Chossudovsky.
Mérette, currently the university’s deputy provost, said he does “not endorse or support the views and opinions expressed by the former professor Chossudovsky on the website or in any other medium.”
Dissou, an economics professor, similarly said he doesn’t want to be associated with Chossudovsky’s “activities or ideas,” calling him a “former colleague who retired from the department more than six years ago.”
Chossudovsky’s website also features photos of him in discussion with the late Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro. Chossudovsky’s CV notes he holds Canadian, British and Irish citizenships and that he’s been interviewed on such mainstream news outlets as CBC, CTV and BBC.
In 2005, Jewish advocacy organization B’nai Brith complained to the university after the group became aware of Holocaust denial material on Chossudovsky’s website.
“We remain concerned that the website still promotes conspiracy theories, including anti-Semitic ones,” B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said in an email to CBC.
He pointed to a range of wild claims on the site, including the unfounded allegations that Israel worked with the U.S. to intentionally unleash COVID-19 and that Israel and Jewish-American politicians staged the 9/11 attacks.
Chossudovsky declined to answer emailed questions from CBC about his links to Russia and the source of his website’s funding. Instead, his Montreal-based lawyer, John Philpot, told CBC that Chossudovsky “pursues legitimate journalism as he has done for almost 20 years.”
Philpot also said, “please (do) not embark on the type of witch hunt which has become common practice south of the border.”
Some authors linked to GRU, report says
Research from Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, a program examining abuse in information technologies, found links tying Global Research to Russian military intelligence agency operations. The 2019 study, commissioned by a U.S. Senate intelligence committee, analyzed online content that Facebook attributed to the spy agency commonly known as the GRU.
Based on the research, the State Department said Global Research published or reposted articles by at least seven authors using aliases — or “sock puppet personas,” according to the Stanford report — to hide their ties to the GRU. The content remains accessible on the website.
According to a U.S. Justice Department indictment unsealed this week, six alleged officers from the same agency were charged in the U.S. for an array of cyberattacks around the world. The GRU was also linked to a hack of Democratic Party emails in 2016.
In an interview, Stanford research scholar Shelby Grossman said the team looked for evidence that disinformation stemming from the spy agency wound up in the mainstream press.
“It didn’t really succeed,” she said, as the articles were only published on fringe sites such as Global Research. She said the content was more likely to reach audiences who already tended to believe in conspiracy theories and “weird, Russian-aligned views.”
“That being said… this is still dangerous,” she said. “This kind of content can further polarize people to hold incorrect beliefs.”