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    How Russian Trolls Helped Keep the Women’s March Out of Lock Step

    Linda Sarsour awoke on Jan. 23, 2017, logged onto the internet, and felt sick.The weekend before, she had stood in Washington at the head of the Women’s March, a mobilization against President Donald J. Trump that surpassed all expectations. Crowds had begun forming before dawn, and by the time she climbed up onto the stage, they extended farther than the eye could see.More than four million people around the United States had taken part, experts later estimated, placing it among the largest single-day protests in the nation’s history.But then something shifted, seemingly overnight. What she saw on Twitter that Monday was a torrent of focused grievance that targeted her. In 15 years as an activist, largely advocating for the rights of Muslims, she had faced pushback, but this was of a different magnitude. A question began to form in her mind: Do they really hate me that much?That morning, there were things going on that Ms. Sarsour could not imagine.More than 4,000 miles away, organizations linked to the Russian government had assigned teams to the Women’s March. At desks in bland offices in St. Petersburg, using models derived from advertising and public relations, copywriters were testing out social media messages critical of the Women’s March movement, adopting the personas of fictional Americans.They posted as Black women critical of white feminism, conservative women who felt excluded, and men who mocked participants as hairy-legged whiners. But one message performed better with audiences than any other.It singled out an element of the Women’s March that might, at first, have seemed like a detail: Among its four co-chairs was Ms. Sarsour, a Palestinian American activist whose hijab marked her as an observant Muslim.Linda Sarsour, a leader of the initial Women’s March in January 2017. Within days, Russian trolls were targeting her online.Theo Wargo/Getty ImagesOver the 18 months that followed, Russia’s troll factories and its military intelligence service put a sustained effort into discrediting the movement by circulating damning, often fabricated narratives around Ms. Sarsour, whose activism made her a lightning rod for Mr. Trump’s base and also for some of his most ardent opposition.One hundred and fifty-two different Russian accounts produced material about her. Public archives of Twitter accounts known to be Russian contain 2,642 tweets about Ms. Sarsour, many of which found large audiences, according to an analysis by Advance Democracy Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts public-interest research and investigations.Many people know the story about how the Women’s March movement fractured, leaving lasting scars on the American left.A fragile coalition to begin with, it headed into crisis over its co-chairs’ association with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, who is widely condemned for his antisemitic statements. When this surfaced, progressive groups distanced themselves from Ms. Sarsour and her fellow march co-chairs, Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland, and some called for them to step down.But there is also a story that has not been told, one that only emerged years later in academic research, of how Russia inserted itself into this moment.For more than a century, Russia and the Soviet Union sought to weaken their adversaries in the West by inflaming racial and ethnic tensions. In the 1960s, K.G.B. officers based in the United States paid agents to paint swastikas on synagogues and desecrate Jewish cemeteries. They forged racist letters, supposedly from white supremacists, to African diplomats.They did not invent these social divisions; America already had them. Ladislav Bittman, who worked for the secret police in Czechoslovakia before defecting to the United States, compared Soviet disinformation programs to an evil doctor who expertly diagnoses the patient’s vulnerabilities and exploits them, “prolongs his illness and speeds him to an early grave instead of curing him.”A decade ago, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, oversaw a revival of these tactics, seeking to undermine democracies around the world from the shadows.Social media now provided an easy way to feed ideas into American discourse, something that, for half a century, the K.G.B. had struggled to do. And the Russian government secretly funneled more than $300 million to political parties in more than two dozen countries in an effort to sway their policies in Moscow’s favor since 2014, according to a U.S. intelligence review made public last week.What effect these intrusions had on American democracy is a question that will be with us for years. It may be unanswerable. Already, social media was amplifying Americans’ political impulses, leaving behind a trail of damaged communities. Already, trust in institutions was declining, and rage was flaring up in public life. These things would have been true without Russian interference.But to trace the Russian intrusions over the months that followed that first Women’s March is to witness a persistent effort to make all of them worse.After the 2016 election, the Russian disinformation operation at the Internet Research Agency shifted focus from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to broader U.S. targets.James Hill for The New York Times‘Refrigerators and Nails’In early 2017, the trolling operation was in its imperial phase, swelling with confidence.Accounts at the Internet Research Agency, an organization based in St. Petersburg and controlled by a Putin ally, had boasted of propelling Mr. Trump to victory. That year, the group’s budget nearly doubled, according to internal communications made public by U.S. prosecutors. More than a year would pass before social media platforms executed sweeping purges of Russian-backed sock-puppet accounts.For the trolls, it was a golden hour.Under these auspicious conditions, their goals shifted from electoral politics to something more general — the goal of deepening rifts in American society, said Alex Iftimie, a former federal prosecutor who worked on a 2018 case against an administrator at Project Lakhta, which oversaw the Internet Research Agency and other Russian trolling operations.“It wasn’t exclusively about Trump and Clinton anymore,” said Mr. Iftimie, now a partner at Morrison Foerster. “It was deeper and more sinister and more diffuse in its focus on exploiting divisions within society on any number of different levels.”There was a routine: Arriving for a shift, workers would scan news outlets on the ideological fringes, far left and far right, mining for extreme content that they could publish and amplify on the platforms, feeding extreme views into mainstream conversations.Artyom Baranov, who worked at one of Project Lakhta’s affiliates from 2018 to 2020, concluded that his co-workers were, for the most part, people who needed the money, indifferent to the themes they were asked to write on.“If they were assigned to write text about refrigerators, they would write about refrigerators, or, say, nails, they would write about nails,” said Mr. Baranov, one of a handful of former trolls who have spoken on the record about their activities. But instead of refrigerators and nails, it was “Putin, Putin, then Putin, and then about Navalny,” referring to Aleksei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader.The job was not to put forward arguments, but to prompt a visceral, emotional reaction, ideally one of “indignation,” said Mr. Baranov, a psychoanalyst by training, who was assigned to write posts on Russian politics. “The task is to make a kind of explosion, to cause controversy,” he said.When a post succeeded at enraging a reader, he said, a co-worker would sometimes remark, with satisfaction, Liberala razorvala. A liberal was torn apart. “It wasn’t on the level of discussing facts or giving new arguments,” he said. “It’s always a way of digging into dirty laundry.”Feminism was an obvious target, because it was viewed as a “Western agenda,” and hostile to the traditional values that Russia represented, said Mr. Baranov, who spoke about his work in hopes of warning the public to be more skeptical of material online. Already, for months, Russian accounts purporting to belong to Black women had been drilling down on racial rifts within American feminism:“White feminism seems to be the most stupid 2k16 trend”“Watch Muhammad Ali shut down a white feminist criticizing his arrogance”“Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit”“Why black feminists don’t owe Hillary Clinton their support”“A LIL LOUDER FOR THE WHITE FEMINISTS IN THE BACK”In January 2017, as the Women’s March drew nearer, they tested different approaches on different audiences, as they had during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. They posed as resentful trans women, poor women and anti-abortion women. They dismissed the marchers as pawns of the Jewish billionaire George Soros.And they derided the women who planned to participate, often in crudely sexual terms. In coordination, beginning on Jan. 19, 46 Russian accounts pumped out 459 original suggestions for #RenameMillionWomenMarch, a hashtag created by a right-wing podcaster from Indiana:The Why Doesn’t Anybody Love Me MarchThe Strong Women Constantly Playing the Victim MarchThe Lonely Cat Lady MarchThe Cramp CampThe Bearded Women ConventionBroken Broads BloviatingThe Liberal Trail of TearsCoyote Ugly BitchfestIn the meantime, another, far more effective line of messaging was developing.Ms. Sarsour recalled the overwhelming torrent of attacks. “I mean, just imagine,” she said, “every day that you woke up, you were a monster.”Brad Ogbonna/Redux‘It Was Like an Avalanche’As one of the four co-chairs of the Women’s March, Ms. Sarsour came with a track record — and with baggage.The daughter of a Palestinian American shopkeeper in Crown Heights, she had risen to prominence as a voice for the rights of Muslims after 9/11. In 2015, when she was 35, a New York Times profile anointed her — a “Brooklyn Homegirl in a Hijab” — as something rare, a potential Arab American candidate for elected office.In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders featured her at a campaign event, a stamp of approval from one of the country’s most influential progressives. That troubled pro-Israel politicians in New York, who pointed to her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to secure Palestinian rights by isolating Israel. Critics of the movement contend that it threatens Israel’s existence.Rory Lancman, then a city councilman from Queens, recalls his growing alarm as she began to appear regularly at events for left-wing causes unrelated to Israel, like fair wages, where, he felt, “her real agenda was trying to marry an anti-Israel agenda with different progressive causes.”The news that Ms. Sarsour was among the leaders of the Women’s March, said Mr. Lancman, a Democrat, struck him as “heartbreaking — that’s the word — that antisemitism is tolerated and rationalized in progressive spaces.”That was politics as usual, and Ms. Sarsour was accustomed to it: the long-running feud among Democrats over the implications of criticizing Israel.But forty-eight hours after the march, a shift of tone occurred online, with a surge of posts describing Ms. Sarsour as a radical jihadi who had infiltrated American feminism. Ms. Sarsour recalls this vividly, because she woke to a worried text message from a friend and glanced at Twitter to find that she was trending.Not all of this backlash was organic. That week, Russian amplifier accounts began circulating posts that focused on Ms. Sarsour, many of them inflammatory and based on falsehoods, claiming she was a radical Islamist, “a pro-ISIS Anti USA Jew Hating Muslim” who “was seen flashing the ISIS sign.”Some of these posts found a large audience. At 7 p.m. on Jan. 21, an Internet Research Agency account posing as @TEN_GOP, a fictional right-wing American from the South, tweeted that Ms. Sarsour favored imposing Shariah law in the United States, playing into a popular anti-Muslim conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump had helped to popularize on the campaign trail.This message took hold, racking up 1,686 replies, 8,046 retweets and 6,256 likes. An hour later, @PrisonPlanet, an influential right-wing account, posted a tweet on the same theme. The following day, nearly simultaneously, a small army of 1,157 right-wing accounts picked up the narrative, publishing 1,659 posts on the subject, according to a reconstruction by Graphika, a social media monitoring company.Things were changing on the ground in New York. At the Arab American Association of New York, the nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization Ms. Sarsour ran in Bay Ridge, hate mail began to pour in — postcards, handwritten screeds on notebook paper, her photo printed out and defaced with red X’s.“This was an entirely new level, and it felt weird, because it was coming from all over the country,” said Kayla Santosuosso, then the nonprofit’s deputy director, who remembers bringing the mail to Ms. Sarsour in shoe boxes. Ms. Sarsour, worried that she had become “a liability,” stepped down from her position there that February.By the spring, the backlash against Ms. Sarsour had developed into a divisive political sideshow, one that easily drowned out the ideas behind the Women’s March. Every time she thought the attacks were quieting, they surged back. “It was like an avalanche,” she said. “Like I was swimming in it every day. It was like I never got out of it.”When she was invited to appear as a graduation speaker at the City University of New York’s graduate school of public health, the furor began weeks in advance. It caught the attention of the far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos, who traveled to New York for a protest that attracted, as a Times reporter wrote, “a strange mix, including right-leaning Jews and Zionists, commentators like Pamela Geller, and some members of the alt-right.”“Linda Sarsour is a Shariah-loving, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating, ticking time bomb of progressive horror,” Mr. Yiannopoulos told the crowd.Ms. Sarsour recalls the period leading up to the graduation speech as particularly stressful. As it approached, she had visions of a figure coming out of the shadows to kill her, “some poor, like, deranged person who was consumed by the dark corners of the internet, who would be fueled by hate.”Russian troll accounts were part of that clamor; beginning more than a month before her speech, a handful of amplifier accounts managed by Russia’s largest military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., circulated expressions of outrage at her being selected, often hashtagged #CancelSarsour.When Mr. Yiannopoulos spoke, @TEN_GOP tweeted the juiciest phrases — the “ticking time bomb of progressive horror” line — and racked up 3,954 retweets and 5,967 likes.Her graduation speech passed without incident. Then the trolls waited, it seems, for her to say or do something divisive. And that happened in early July, when, emboldened after her C.U.N.Y. appearance, she urged a Muslim audience outside Chicago to push back against unjust government policies, calling it “the best form of jihad.”In Islam, the word “jihad” can denote any virtuous struggle, but in the American political context it is inextricable from the concept of holy war. A more pragmatic politician might have avoided using it, but Ms. Sarsour was feeling like her old self. “That’s who I am in real life,” she said. “I’m from Brooklyn, and I’m Palestinian. It’s my personality.”To the Russian trolls, it was an opportunity.The following week, Russian accounts dramatically increased their volume of messaging about Ms. Sarsour, producing 184 posts on a single day, according to Advance Democracy Inc.Once again, the audience responded: When @TEN_GOP tweeted, “linda sarsour openly calls for muslims to wage jihad against trump, please look into this matter,” it received 6,222 retweets and 6,549 likes. The accounts sustained an intense focus on her through July, producing 894 posts over the next month and continuing into the autumn, the group found.And once again, the backlash spilled out from social media. Protesters camped outside the kosher barbecue restaurant where her brother, Mohammed, worked as a manager, demanding that he be fired. He left the job, and, eventually, New York.Her mother opened a package that arrived in the mail and screamed: It was a bizarre self-published book, titled “A Jihad Grows in Brooklyn,” that purported to be Ms. Sarsour’s autobiography and was illustrated with family photographs.“I mean, just imagine,” Ms. Sarsour said, “every day that you woke up, you were a monster.”Progressive groups distanced themselves from Ms. Sarsour, left, and her fellow march co-chairs Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez.Erin Scott/ReutersChasing GhostsIt is maddeningly difficult to say with any certainty what effect Russian influence operations have had on the United States, because when they took hold they piggybacked on real social divisions. Once pumped into American discourse, the Russian trace vanishes, like water that has been added to a swimming pool.This creates a conundrum for disinformation specialists, many of whom say the impact of Russian interventions has been overblown. After the 2016 presidential election, blaming unwelcome outcomes on Russia became “the emotional way out,” said Thomas Rid, author of “Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare.”“It’s playing a trick on you,” said Dr. Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “You become a useful idiot if you ignore effective info ops. But also if you talk it up by telling a story, if you make it more powerful than it is. It’s a trick.”The divisions within the Women’s March existed already.Internal disputes about identity and antisemitism had strained the group from its early days, when one of its organizers, Vanessa Wruble, who is Jewish, was pushed out after what she described as tense conversations with Ms. Perez and Ms. Mallory about the role of Jews in structural racism. Ms. Perez and Ms. Mallory have disputed that account.And discomfort with Ms. Sarsour had dampened enthusiasm among some Jewish progressives, said Rachel Timoner, the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.She recalled stepping up to defend Ms. Sarsour against “racist and Islamophobic” attacks, only to find, each time, that a new firestorm would arise, often resulting from something inflammatory and “ultimately indefensible” Ms. Sarsour had said.As the months wore on, Rabbi Timoner said, Jews began asking themselves whether they were being excluded from progressive movements.In 2018, a new internal crisis was triggered by Ms. Mallory’s attendance at Saviours’ Day, an annual gathering of the Nation of Islam led by Mr. Farrakhan.Ms. Mallory grew up in Harlem, where many viewed the Nation of Islam and its founder positively, as crusaders against urban violence. Pressured to disavow Mr. Farrakhan, she refused, though she said she did not share his antisemitic views. After her son’s father was murdered, she explained, “it was the women of the Nation of Islam who supported me.”“I have always held them close to my heart for that reason,” she said.After that, the fabric of the coalition tore, slowly and painfully. Ms. Sarsour and Ms. Perez stuck by Ms. Mallory, and before long, progressive groups began distancing themselves from all three. Under intense pressure to step down as the leaders, Ms. Sarsour, Ms. Perez, and a third co-chair, Bob Bland, did so in 2019, a move they say was long planned.Russian accounts boosted their output around Mr. Farrakhan and the Women’s March leaders that spring, posting 10 or 20 times a day, but there is no evidence that they were a primary driver of the conversation.Around this time, we largely lose our view into Russian messaging. In the summer of 2018, Twitter suspended 3,841 accounts traced to the Internet Research Agency, preserving 10 million of their tweets so they could be studied by researchers. A few months later, the platform suspended and preserved the work of 414 accounts produced by the G.R.U., the military intelligence agency.With that, a chorus of voices went silent — accounts that, for years, had helped shape American conversations about Black Lives Matter, the Mueller investigation and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. The record of the messaging around the Women’s March breaks off there, too, frozen in time.Russia’s exploitation of Ms. Sarsour as a wedge figure should be understood as part of the history of the Women’s March, said Shireen Mitchell, a technology analyst who has studied Russian interference in Black online discourse.Russian campaigns, she said, were adept at seeding ideas that flowed into mainstream discourse, after which, as she put it, they could “just sit and wait.”“It’s the priming of all that, starting from the beginning,” said Ms. Mitchell, the founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women. “If those thousand tweets hit a division between the groups that matter, if they open and allow that division, it’s no longer a crack. It becomes a valley.”Others saw Russia’s role as marginal, tinkering around the edges of a necessary American discussion.“It’s a shame that Linda Sarsour damaged that movement by trying to inject into it noxious ideas that had no reason to be part of the Women’s March,” said Mr. Lancman, the former city councilman. “Unfortunately,” he added, Russians “seem very adept at exploiting these fissures.”Rabbi Timoner sounded sad, recalling all that had happened. The wounds that opened up between progressives that year have never quite healed, she said.“There is so much Jewish pain here,” she said. “Those Russian bots were poking at that pain.”The Women’s March continued under new leadership, but during the months of controversy, many women who had been galvanized by the first march drifted away.“I can’t remember all the negative stories, I just remember that there were so many of them,” said Jennifer Taylor-Skinner, a Seattle woman who, after the 2017 march, quit her job at Microsoft and founded “The Electorette,” a podcast geared toward progressive women. She hasn’t ever recaptured that feeling of unity.“Just thinking about it, I still feel a bit unmoored from any central movement,” she said. “There was a coalition possibly forming here that has been broken up.”An AftershockMs. Sarsour, 42, was back in her old office in Bay Ridge this past spring, five years after the first Women’s March, when she learned, from a reporter, that the Russian government had targeted her.She is seldom invited to national platforms these days, and when she is, protests often follow. Whatever buzz there was around her as a future political candidate has quieted. She knows how she is seen, as a polarizing figure. She has adjusted to this reality, and sees herself more as an activist, in the mold of Angela Davis.“I’m never going to get a real job,” at a major nonprofit or a corporation, she said. “That’s the kind of impact that these things have on our lives.”Data on Russian messaging around the Women’s March first appeared late last year in an academic journal, where Samantha R. Bradshaw, a disinformation expert at American University, reviewed state interference in feminist movements.She and her co-author, Amélie Henle, found a pattern of messaging by influential amplifier accounts that sought to demobilize civil society activism, by pumping up intersectional critiques of feminism and attacking organizers.Movements, Dr. Bradshaw argues, are fragile structures, often unprepared to weather well-resourced state-backed sabotage campaigns, especially when combined with algorithms that promote negative content. But healthy social movements are essential to democracies, she said.“We’re not going to have a robust public sphere if nobody wants to organize protests,” she said.Ms. Sarsour isn’t an academic, but she understood it well enough.“Lord have mercy,” she said, glancing over Dr. Bradshaw’s findings.Ms. Sarsour tried to get her head around it: All that time, the Russian government had been thinking about her. She had long had a sense of where her critics came from: the American right wing, and supporters of Israel. A foreign government — that was something that had never occurred to her.“To think that Russia is going to use me, it’s much more dangerous and sinister,” she said. “What does Russia get out of leveraging my identity, you know, to undermine movements that were anti-Trump in America — I guess —” she paused. “It’s just, wow.”Understanding what Russian trolls did would not change her position.Still, it helped her understand that time in her life, when she had been at the center of a storm. It wasn’t just her fellow countrymen hating her. It wasn’t just her allies disavowing her. That had happened. But it wasn’t the whole story.She placed a call to Ms. Mallory.“We weren’t crazy,” she said.Aaron Krolik More

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    An American’s Murky Path From Russian Propagandist to Jan. 6

    Charles Bausman, a former financial executive who runs websites that promote far-right views, recorded footage in the Capitol for a Russian television producer. Soon after, he fled to Moscow as a “political refugee.”In security footage from Jan. 6, it is easy to overlook the thin man wearing a red Trump hat who filters into the U.S. Capitol Building to record the mayhem with his phone.He blends in with the mob, seemingly unexceptional by the chaotic standards of that day. But what he did afterward was far from routine.Within 24 hours, the man, Charles Bausman, gave his recordings and commentary to a Russian television producer for a propaganda video. He then decamped to Moscow, where, appearing on a far-right television network owned by a sanctioned oligarch, he recently accused American media of covering up for neo-Nazis in Ukraine.“We must understand that in the West,” Mr. Bausman told Russian viewers, “we are already in a situation of total lies.”For Mr. Bausman — an American alumnus of Phillips Exeter Academy and Wesleyan University who speaks fluent Russian — it was the latest chapter in a strange odyssey. Once a financial executive who voted for President Barack Obama, he emerged in 2014 as a public critic of the left and of the United States, boosted by Russian state-sponsored organizations through speaking invitations, TV appearances and awards.Central to his transformation was a series of websites he created pushing anti-America, pro-Russia themes, as well as racist and homophobic messaging. Some of his posts have racked up millions of views, and his 5,000-word screed on “the Jewish problem” has been hailed by antisemites around the world and translated into multiple languages.Mr. Bausman’s path in some ways tracks a broader shift on the political right that embraces misinformation and sympathy toward Russia while tolerating an increasingly emboldened white nationalism. For its part, the Kremlin has sought to court conservatives in the United States and sow discord through a network of expats, collaborators and spies.People who have written for Mr. Bausman’s websites or promoted his work have come under scrutiny by American intelligence, and the founder of a pro-Russia forum that hosted him and others was charged in March with being an unregistered agent of Moscow.Mr. Bausman initially gained some prominence as a Russia apologist, but he has lowered his profile in recent years as he has espoused more extreme views. Yet he has been Zelig-like in exploiting cultural and political flash points, racing from cause to cause.After surfacing as a voluble defender of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, Mr. Bausman became an outspoken Trump supporter. With white nationalism on the rise, he threw himself into promoting it, relocating to rural Pennsylvania and hosting neo-Nazis at his property. He joined Republican protests against coronavirus restrictions and the 2020 election and most recently has reappeared in Russian media to criticize the West’s response to the war in Ukraine.Mr. Bausman attended a 2015 conference hosted by RT, a news channel tied to the Kremlin.Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik, via APKonstantin Malofeev, an influential oligarch indicted by the United States over alleged sanctions violations, said he had asked Mr. Bausman to appear on his television network because Mr. Bausman was one of the few Russian-speaking Americans willing to do it.“Who else is there to invite?” Mr. Malofeev asked.Mr. Bausman, 58, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. No charges have been brought against him related to the events of Jan. 6, though he appears inside the Capitol in video clips introduced in court cases against others. When a Russian TV host referred to him as “a participant” in storming the Capitol, Mr. Bausman interrupted to say that the description could get him into trouble, and that he was a journalist.Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine WarHistory and Background: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.How the Battle Is Unfolding: Russian and Ukrainian forces are using a bevy of weapons as a deadly war of attrition grinds on in eastern Ukraine.Russia’s Brutal Strategy: An analysis of more than 1,000 photos found that Russia has used hundreds of weapons in Ukraine that are widely banned by international treaties.Outside Pressures: Governments, sports organizations and businesses are taking steps to punish Russia. Here are some of the sanctions adopted so far and a list of companies that have pulled out of the country.Stay Updated: To receive the latest updates on the war in your inbox, sign up here. The Times has also launched a Telegram channel to make its journalism more accessible around the world.But, on other occasions, he has described himself differently. Speaking on a white nationalist podcast in April, in which he attacked critics of Russia as “evil pedophile globalists” who control the “enslaved West,” he explained why he was back in Moscow:“I’m a political refugee here.”Connecticut to MoscowPresident Vladimir V. Putin had just invaded Crimea in 2014 when Mr. Bausman said he had an idea. He would create an alternative news source to counter what he called Western media’s “inaccurate, incomplete and unrealistically negative picture of Russia.”The website, Russia Insider, was directed at an English-speaking audience and offered stories like, “Putin to Obama: You’re Turning the U.S.A. Into a Godless Sewer,” and “Anti-Christian Pogrom Underway in Ukraine.” Content was often aggregated from other pro-Russia sources, including RT, the Kremlin-funded television network.The role of online agitator was not an obvious one for Mr. Bausman, who grew up in the wealthy suburb of Greenwich, Conn., attended prep school and went on to earn a history degree from Wesleyan and study business at Columbia. His experience with Russia dates to his childhood, when his father served as the Moscow bureau chief for The Associated Press.Mr. Bausman with his father, who worked in Moscow for The Associated Press.As a college graduate in the late 1980s, he returned to Russia, and, with help from his father’s connections, worked briefly for NBC News. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Mr. Bausman found a new role: as a multilingual fixer for entrepreneurs scrambling to cash in on the emerging economy.A. Craig Copetas, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent who wrote a book about the post-Soviet business era, said Mr. Bausman worked with Russians who “were the forerunners of the oligarchs.”“Charlie speaks excellent Russian,” he said, “so he was a valuable asset — he was like the young American prince of Moscow.”Mr. Bausman’s early success was not to last. There are gaps in his résumé, and U.S. court records show that he filed for bankruptcy in 1999.A former business associate recalled Mr. Bausman’s father beseeching people to “help my son” with his career. This person — one of several who did not want to be identified because of Mr. Bausman’s ties to extremists — described him as “just this lost guy” who seemed to struggle professionally despite impressive qualifications. He worked a succession of Russian private equity jobs, never staying in any position longer than a few years.Mr. Bausman’s last role was with the agribusiness investor AVG Capital Partners. A 2012 company presentation, which listed him as director of investor relations, boasted of “strong partnerships” with Russian authorities and included a photo of Mr. Putin.The exact timing of Mr. Bausman’s switch to propagandist is murky, but two profiles on the Russian social media platform VK offer a clue. The first, from 2011, is a sparse page featuring a wan Mr. Bausman in a suit and a link to a group interested in tennis.In the second profile, from two years later, he looks tan and confident in an open-collared shirt. The VK groups he joined were strikingly radical, including a militant Russian Orthodox sect and another called the Internet Militia, whose goal echoed what would soon become Mr. Bausman’s focus: “to protect and defend our native information field” against American attack.Oligarch ConnectionsPublicly, Mr. Bausman turned to crowd funding to pay for Russia Insider. Behind the scenes, however, he was in contact with Mr. Malofeev, a promoter of Orthodox nationalist propaganda.Leaked emails made public in 2014 revealed Mr. Bausman corresponding with a Malofeev associate, saying “we published your Serbia info” and asking for money. In an email to Mr. Malofeev, the associate praised Mr. Bausman’s site as “pro-Russian” and noted that he “wants to cooperate.”Mr. Malofeev was backing another media project at the time with a similar agenda: Tsargrad TV, which he created with a former Fox News employee, John Hanick. Both Mr. Hanick and Mr. Malofeev were charged by the United States this year with violating sanctions imposed in 2014.Mr. Bausman has appeared on the television network of Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch indicted by the U.S. for alleged sanctions violations.Tatyana Makeyeva/ReutersIn an interview, Mr. Malofeev said he believed Mr. Bausman “has done a great job and that he is a very brave person,” but he denied they had “a financial relationship.”Mr. Bausman has always said he did not receive support from Russian authorities. But there is little doubt that his emergence as an American salesman of pro-Kremlin views was aided greatly by entities controlled by or tied to the Russian state.After Russia Insider went live, Mr. Bausman began appearing on RT and other Russian media, and a news crew from a major state-owned TV channel traveled to his parents’ home in Connecticut to film him discussing his new website. On Facebook, he boasted that “our traffic exploded after this aired.”He was invited to join panel discussions at another state-owned outlet, received an award in 2016 named after a pro-Russia journalist killed in Ukraine, and spoke at a Kremlin-sponsored youth conference in newly captured Crimea. He gave interviews to Russian Orthodox figures, speaking approvingly of Mr. Malofeev.In April 2016, Mr. Bausman’s work was promoted by a Russian website, RIA FAN, that has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch indicted by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller. The website initially shared an address with the Internet Research Agency, the Russian government “troll factory” accused of using fake social media accounts and online propaganda to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.Russia analysts who have followed Mr. Bausman’s work say it has the hallmarks of a disinformation project. Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis who researches Russian propaganda campaigns, said his messaging merged seamlessly with that of Mr. Putin’s government.“The initial purpose of his outlet was to muddle the truth in American circles about Crimea,” she said. “And then you see his outlet and others repurposed to support the Kremlin narrative about Syria, and then the 2016 U.S. elections.“It appears,” she said, “to be a classic Russian influence operation.”Hard-Right TurnWith Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, Mr. Bausman’s media outlet began to promote more extreme views. In a celebratory post after the election, he struck a militant chord that shocked old friends.“Trump’s election is perhaps akin to Luther nailing his theses to the door, but now the demons are wakened, and they know they must fight or be killed, and as in the 16th century, they will not go quietly,” he wrote. “And there will be blood. Let us hope that it is the figurative, digital kind, and not the real, red, hot, sticky stuff.”A turning point came in January 2018, when Mr. Bausman posted a lengthy polemic, “It’s Time to Drop the Jew Taboo,” that was both an antisemitic manifesto and a call to action for the alt-right.“The evidence suggests that much of human enterprise dominated and shaped by Jews is a bottomless pit of trouble with a peculiar penchant for mendacity and cynicism, hostility to Christianity and Christian values, and in geopolitics, a clear bloodlust,” he wrote.It was welcomed by white nationalist figures like Richard Spencer, who called it “a major event.”Outside the far right, Mr. Bausman’s embrace of antisemitism was widely condemned. The U.S. State Department flagged it in a report on human-rights concerns in Russia, and the diatribe prompted a disavowal from RT.After the death in August 2018 of his mother, who left an estate valued at about $2.6 million, Mr. Bausman bought two properties in Lancaster, Pa., where his family had roots.His older sister, Mary-Fred Bausman-Watkins, said last year that her brother “was always short on money” and that their parents frequently helped him out, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has compiled several reports on his activities. Ms. Bausman-Watkins died in May.“They funded his whole life,” she told the center, “and then he inherited their money when they died, and they’re still funding his life.”The InsurrectionWhile living in Lancaster with his Russian wife and two young daughters, Mr. Bausman turned his attention to two new websites devoted largely to white nationalist content. Headlines included: “Out of Control Black Violence” and “Jewish Intellectuals Call on Gays to Perform Sex Acts in Front of Children.”Mr. Bausman concealed his ownership of one of these sites, National Justice, through a private registration, which The New York Times confirmed by reviewing data leaked last year from Epik, a web-hosting service favored by the far right. The site has the same name as a white nationalist organization and featured posts by one of its leaders, though it is not the group’s official site, according to its chairman, Michael Peinovich.In an interview, Mr. Peinovich said Mr. Bausman had hosted party members at his farmstead for an inaugural meeting in 2020 (a large event first reported by a local news outlet, LancasterOnline). But afterward, he said, his group “went our own way” because it did not agree with Mr. Bausman’s preoccupation with supporting Mr. Trump.Three days before Jan. 6, 2021, Mr. Bausman allowed Rod of Iron Ministries, a gun-themed religious sect led by a son of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, to meet at his property, according to photos on social media. Members of the sect had been active in “Stop the Steal” rallies, some of which Mr. Bausman had also attended, and were at the Capitol on Jan. 6.On Facebook, Mr. Bausman posted an appeal for people to go to Washington “to support Trump.” At various points during the riot, Mr. Bausman can be seen inside the Capitol, often using his phone to record the chaos.Mr. Bausman, right, has said he entered the Capitol in the capacity of a journalist.via YouTubeAfterward, he returned to Lancaster and gave a lengthy interview for a video about the insurrection produced by Arkady Mamontov, a Russian television host known for splashy pro-Kremlin propaganda pieces. The video also included footage of Mr. Bausman outside his home that appears to have been filmed months earlier. Mr. Mamontov did not respond to a request for comment.In the video, Mr. Bausman suggested, without evidence, that federal agents had instigated the violence at the Capitol to “discredit Trump,” and he painted a dystopian, conspiratorial picture of American society. It is a theme that he has carried forward to more recent appearances on Mr. Malofeev’s television network, in which he has accused Western media of lying about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.It is not clear when Mr. Bausman left the U.S., but he was in Moscow for a TV appearance on the day of President Biden’s inauguration, two weeks after the insurrection at the Capitol. In the white nationalist podcast interview he gave in April from Russia, he said he had not been back home since.When asked by the host if he was still a Trump fan, Mr. Bausman said he was not, before adding with a laugh that there was one thing that could restore his loyalty.“When he pardons me for Jan. 6,” he said.Anton Troianovski More