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‘Crisis Actors’? Where Have I Heard That Before?

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After being condemned around the world for in Mariupol, Ukraine, Russia advanced a bogus conspiracy theory last month that was chillingly familiar to me.

Using from social media, dodgy “reports” and constant repetition, the Russian Defense Ministry falsely was a “staged provocation” by Ukraine. The hospital, , was nonoperational and a . Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations of the aftermath as “fake news,” and the Foreign Ministry alleged that bloodied, pregnant women evacuated from the rubble were

And so it has gone ever since. Ukrainian civilians ; found bound and shot in or gunned down while — all were cast by Russia as actors in ” aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s cause. a town on the outskirts of Kyiv, were placed there after the Russian retreat.

Early in my career, I spent a decade as a correspondent in Eastern Europe, including three years in Russia. But it was because of my work for The Times over the last four years, covering the defamation lawsuits filed by the families of 10 Sandy Hook victims against the conspiracy broadcaster , that Moscow’s lies have resonated most strongly.

In ” I wrote that the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories — once believed to be true by — foretold the world of delusion that we live in today. Through my reporting, from Sandy Hook to Pizzagate; to QAnon, and its claims that Democrats were trafficking children; to antisemitic tropes invoked by neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville; to coronavirus myths; and to the 2020 election lie that fomented the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. And now, to the war in Ukraine.

Lenny Pozner, father of Noah, the youngest of the Sandy Hook victims, predicted this spread of disinformation during my earliest interviews with him in 2018. Mr. Pozner is a technology expert who, through his nonprofit, , protects the victims of online abuse. He was the first relative of a Sandy Hook victim to confront the conspiracy theorists, convinced that their falsehoods represented a broader threat. Mr. Pozner, who was born in a former Soviet republic, said he was unsurprised when Russia dismissed evidence of its actions in Ukraine with words similar to those Mr. Jones used to deny Noah’s death.

My first close experience with wartime disinformation was during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. In Belgrade, a Serbian foreign ministry official gave me an armload of books, all of them falsely claiming that victims of the region’s genocidal wars had fabricated evidence of atrocities or committed the crimes themselves.

But today, as I watch Russia spread disinformation about the war in Ukraine with terms that developed in America, and then American conspiracy theorists regurgitating that disinformation, I’ve realized that those books are not the discredited relics I imagined they would be.

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