With a Russian invasion of Ukraine potentially imminent, U.S. intelligence has again turned its attention to the role that paid propaganda and misinformation play in Vladimir Putin’s regime. In particular, unnamed sources in the U.S. intelligence community have focused on the financial blog/conspiracy theory website Zero Hedge, claiming that it is currently working to amplify pro-Russia, anti-NATO narratives through articles possibly written by Russian operatives.
An Associated Press story on Tuesday revealed that the long-running blog supposedly run by “Tyler Durden,” the pseudonym used as the byline for the majority of Zero Hedge pieces, had “published articles created by Moscow-controlled media that were then shared by outlets and people unaware of their nexus to Russian intelligence.”
The story in the Associated Press did not say which U.S. agencies were behind the claims against Zero Hedge.
But they cited stories written on Zero Hedge in late 2021 by various authors under the banner of a Russia-based think tank called the Strategic Culture Foundation, with attention-grabbing headlines like “Americans Need A Conspiracy Theory They Can All Agree On” and “NATO Sliding Towards War Against Russia In Ukraine.”
While the Foundation claims it merely “provides a platform for exclusive analysis, research and policy comment on Eurasian and global affairs,” it’s been accused of amplifying fringe anti-western conspiracy theorists, and was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2021 for interfering in the 2020 presidential election.
Zero Hedge denied to the AP that these pieces, which were cut-and-pasted, word-for-word, from the Strategic Culture Foundation website and credited to both Tyler Durden and their original writers, were created by Russian propagandists. Zero Hedge claimed only that the Foundation is one of many contributors to their site. But their tone is similar to many other pieces running on Zero Hedge credited to Durden that make the same anti-Ukraine, pro-Russia claims, including one calling the invasion “hype” and another insinuating Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a “clown.”
The site even claims that they didn’t know the Strategic Culture Foundation is linked to Russia or its propaganda engine.
But no matter what the truth is about these individual stories, whether Zero Hedge was tricked into publishing them or knew about the links the whole time, the relationship between Zero Hedge and Russian propaganda has long been known about. Since its founding in 2009, Zero Hedge has been one of the most prolific sources of conspiracy theories and hoaxes about the Clintons and their criminal empire, the ever-looming economic collapse, the ideation of authoritarians, and more recently, COVID-19 being a hoax—all topics that are consistently boosted by Russia-friendly media outlets.
The site’s focus on anti-western conspiracy theories lines up perfectly with Russia’s consistent efforts to amplify those same views on popular western social media. A RAND Corporation report from 2018 identified Zero Hedge as a major node in a linked network of far right/Russia-friendly sites swapping false stories and conspiracy theories, alongside disinformation stalwarts like Before It’s News, GlobalResearch.CA, and the Christian prepping blog End of the American Dream.
But Zero Hedge (like much of the site’s iconography, the name is a reference to the 1999 film Fight Club) didn’t start off like that. Durden—later revealed as Bulgarian banker-turned-journalist Daniel Ivandjiiski—launched Zero Hedge in January 2009. And he started big, with explosive allegations about Goldman Sachs using potentially illegal code to carry out high-frequency trades and skim millions of dollars in profit.
The blog posts, which were full of jargon and technical explanations, took off in financial circles. And after an ex-Goldman Sachs employee was arrested for stealing computer code that could be used for high-speed market manipulation, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the high-frequency trading scandal. Senate Democrats soon enlisted the SEC, who admonished Goldman Sachs and considered (though never implemented) a ban on such deals.
The site quickly gained a reputation for its coverage of the stock market and the players behind it. But success brings scrutiny and Tyler Durden didn’t stay anonymous for long. A New York Magazine story from September 2009, clearly identified Ivandjiiski as the site’s founder and the most likely name behind the Durden pseudonym.
He was even all set to give an interview as part of a longer profile of no-holds-barred bloggers castigating Wall Street in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. But he backed out and cut off contact with the media.
As Zero Hedge’s profile grew it began cranking out dozens of articles per day. Sometimes they were copied almost entirely from mainstream outlets, sometimes they were shares of smaller bloggers, and sometimes they were original content. And Durden’s writing began following the easy money, as it now routinely supplements its financial content with an increasing amount of conspiracy theories, apocalyptic predictions of economic collapse, shilling for gold and doomsday prepping, and content extolling Putin as a defender of traditional values.
The site’s pivot to conspiracy theories isn’t new. Zero Hedge was an early supporter of former President Donald Trump, pumping up his allies and indulging in the same conspiracy theories he did. The site’s paranoid populism and white nationalist outlook were a good fit for the nascent far-right movement, with its authors cranking out an endless stream of posts backstopping traditional values and the forgotten working man.
But like Trump, even that veneer of populism was fake—Zero Hedge was bringing in a huge amount of ad revenue and making its content creators very rich.
After the 2016 election made far-right conspiracy theories extremely profitable, the site seemed to alternate posts, with one analyzing some arcane element of foreign bond markets and another spewing a conspiracy theory about the Clinton Body Count. After over a decade in the disinformation game, its conspiracy stories consistently draw as many or more readers than its financial stories. Of Zero Hedge’s 20 most viewed pieces in 2021, 10 were specifically pushing COVID-19 conspiracy theories, with others claiming that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false flag.
And those stories—manipulated, planted, or paid for or not—push the Putin party line, one that extols authoritarian strength and pushes back against “experts” of all stripes, the liberal press, and the foundations of democracy.
Zero Hedge’s anti-democracy, pro-Russia slant became so obvious that author Seth Hettena, who chronicled the site’s ownership and origins for the New Republic, openly wondered in 2020 if it was a “Trojan Horse” for Russian intelligence narratives.
In his reporting, Hettena linked Zero Hedge’s role as a Russian disinformation mouthpiece to a Russian-aligned subterfuge operation he believed was being run out of Bulgaria by Daniel Ivandjiiski’s father, Krassimir. Hettena soon found himself the subject of a Bulgarian criminal complaint due to his reporting, filed by Krassimir, accusing Hettena of defamation and, ironically, spreading conspiracy theories. (Bulgarian prosecutors declined to file charges and the complaint had no authority in the U.S.)
In particular, in 2019, Zero Hedge pushed a nakedly false claim pinning the downing of Flight MH17 in 2014, long-established as being shot down by a Russian missile battery over eastern Ukraine, on a conspiracy of Ukrainian and U.S. officials as a false flag. The endgame? To get NATO involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
The MH17 conspiracy theory was one of the hundreds (or more) pro-Russia, pro-Trump, anti-Democratic party stories the site published in the second half of the 2010s.
The site shared and invented claims that “Russiagate was the biggest scandal in American history,” that Robert Mueller’s investigation was a hoax, that “the left” had a complex plan to steal the 2020 election, and that the U.N. was covering up “the truth” about the Assad regime’s chemical weapon attacks in Syria being fake.
One author working under the Durden name, Colin Lokey, left the site after claiming he was told to write an endless stream of stories pushing the simple narrative that America and its leaders are idiots and that Putin is the “greatest leader in the history of statecraft.”
In many ways, Zero Hedge has become a standard-issue conspiracy site first, with anything related to financial markets or Wall Street being incidental filler. And it’s also veered into the same antisemitic and racist conspiracy theories that can be found on countless other conspiracy outlets.
The site relentlessly attacked Barack Obama’s birth certificate as a “farce,” rhetorically asked if “the Rothschilds control cryptocurrencies” in a now-deleted 2018 post, and re-blogged a fawning story from the website American Thinker offering “An Introduction to QAnon.”
Ultimately, whether the specific Zero Hedge articles flagged by U.S. intelligence were written by or under the supervision of Russian propagandists is beside the point.
Anyone who has even casually followed the site knows exactly what it is: a ceaseless machine that churns out stories that align with the interest of Russia, is supportive of the growing authoritarian movement in the West, and fits right in alongside the conspiracy machine that’s powered fellow travelers like Alex Jones and QAnon for years.