Exposed: Max Blumenthal’s Grayzone appears to have financial ties to the Russian and Iranian governments

Exposed: Max Blumenthal’s Grayzone appears to have financial ties to the Russian and Iranian governments

The Washington Post reports:

Recently unearthed documents reveal that leaders of an online news site aimed at Americans have received money from both Russian and Iranian government media outlets, showing how widening geopolitical alliances are making it harder to identify and trace foreign influence operations.

Hacked emails and other documents from the Iranian government-funded Press TV show payments of thousands of dollars to a writer who is now a Washington-based editor for Grayzone, whose founder regularly appears on Russian television and once accepted a trip to Moscow for a celebration of Russian state-controlled video network RT that featured Vladimir Putin.

Misinformation experts say the overlap in funding underscores concern that the spread of falsehoods and propaganda online is entering a more complicated stage as the November election draws closer.

“What you are reporting is, I think, the most practical example of that convergence we’ve seen, where you have someone who has deep ties to Iranian state media working for an organization that we also know is a destination for narrative laundering from Russia,” said Emerson Brooking, co-director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab.

The Press TV files, much of them in Persian, were released on Telegram in 2022 by a self-proclaimed hacktivist group called Black Reward, but the files received little attention then. An activist disinformation researcher, Neal Rauhauser, converted them into a searchable format and provided them to The Washington Post.

The files appear to show that the Iranian broadcaster paid a Washington-based reporter for occasional contributions to its programming in 2020 and 2021 while he was working as a correspondent for Russia’s Sputnik news outlet.

That reporter, Wyatt Reed, had nine bylines in the online publication Grayzone in 2019 and 2020, followed by a gap of 2½ years. He has had 24 more Grayzone bylines since mid-2023, when he was identified as managing editor.

Grayzone posts content on the web, X and YouTube and has been highly critical of Iran’s regional enemy Israel and its supporters in the United States. Reed did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Grayzone top editor Max Blumenthal did not answer emails seeking comment.

The First Amendment guarantees free speech rights even for Americans believed to be spreading foreign propaganda. But current and former intelligence officials also say that Americans’ tolerance for information paid for by foreign actors has made disinformation one of the most critical threats to U.S. democracy. Foreign support for ostensibly independent publications gives other countries deniability for disinformation as well as protection from internet platforms’ labeling the output as coming from state-sponsored outlets.

Reed is not the only Grayzone author to have worked for Russian outlets. Grayzone contributor and London journalist Mohamed Elmaazi wrote full-time for Sputnik between 2019 and 2021, he says on his LinkedIn profile. Regular Grayzone freelancer Jeremy Loffredo was full-time at RT in the same years, according to his LinkedIn. Neither responded to requests for comment.

The payments to Reed documented in the hacked Press TV documents came before last year, when the Iranian outlet was singled out for U.S. sanctions that went beyond the general ban on imports from and exports to Iran that was set by presidential executive order in 1995. But Press TV’s parent, state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, was specially sanctioned in 2013, which attorneys said automatically barred transactions with subsidiaries without special permission.

Attorneys who deal regularly with Iran sanctions issues said U.S. journalists who were paid by sanctioned Iranian media entities could be in legal jeopardy unless they were granted waivers by the U.S. Treasury Department. The United States has granted some limited exceptions for state media employees sent to cover events in the country.

“If you are exporting your services to an Iranian company, the answer is yes,” sanctions attorney Ali Herischi said in response to a question about potential liability. “Every Iranian entity is sanctioned, and if there are specific sanctions, you definitely need a license.”

Working for Sputnik theoretically might be covered by the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which generally requires anyone working as the “agent” of a “foreign principal” to register with the Justice Department if they intend to influence officials or “the American public regarding U.S. domestic or foreign policy or the political or public interests of a foreign government or foreign political party.”

But the statute’s application to people working as journalists is unclear, with rare examples of attempted enforcement. Since 2017, the Justice Department has required RT itself and some of its U.S. business partners to register. Some top editors have also registered under FARA.

Beyond writing hundreds of articles for Sputnik, Reed went to occupied Ukraine as an international observer of the widely condemned, post-invasion referendums on whether residents wanted their territories to be annexed by Russia. He was quoted by Russian government news service Tass as saying: “Everything I’ve seen so far has been very transparent, very open.”

While there is no evidence that Iran and Russia discussed their payments to Reed or others, the combination makes it harder to say which country is pushing for or rewarding any particular narrative.

Russia has in the past paid freelancers who did not know where their salary was coming from. It is increasingly common for social media influencers to boost government-backed themes and content, as well as being boosted themselves for doing so.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute said recently that Russia and China probably had coordinated ahead of a March election in the Solomon Islands to spread misinformation in their official social accounts about a nonexistent U.S. plot for regime change, and in 2021 Russian and Chinese officials agreed to cooperate on a slew of media ventures, according to emails hacked from a Russian broadcaster in 2022. The initiative was led by Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media and China’s National Radio and Television Administration.

Since then, Chinese channels have quoted Russian officials and often adopted Russia’s view of the Ukraine war. Chinese accounts even amplified false claims about U.S. bioweapons research in Ukraine, which helped China point to possible American origins for covid-19.

“Many foreign governments collectively view the West, and the U.S. in particular, as a shared adversary,” said Darren Linvill, a misinformation scholar at Clemson University. “They share not only goals, but also tactics with one another. Parallel agendas shared by some non-Western governments makes attribution of responsibility for some disinformation more difficult than it would otherwise be.”

Grayzone does not disclose its financial backing. Little-known among most segments of the population, it has hundreds of thousands of followers on both YouTube and X, and its stories sometimes ricochet among both the far left and far right. X owner Elon Musk has helped that, corresponding on his platform last year with Grayzone personality Aaron Maté when Maté accused the investigative website Bellingcat of being a NATO front and said the White House had squelched talk of a negotiated settlement in Ukraine.

Grayzone founder and editor Blumenthal appears on RT and attended the same 2015 Moscow gala dinner for it that Michael Flynn famously joined. More recently, he promoted the false theory that Russia’s bombing of a theater full of refugees in Mariupol in 2022 was carried out by Ukraine’s forces. [Continue reading…]

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