By Simon Shuster
The Biden administration issued an open threat on March 8 to several Russian media outlets. Over the last few months, the U.S. had been monitoring their campaign of “disinformation” about COVID-19 vaccines, and it now intended to push back “with every tool we have,” the White House said. But that statement did little to deter its most prominent target: an obscure operation called News Front, which has styled itself as a group of “fighters in the information war.”
The site’s editor, Konstantin Knyrik, says the warnings from the White House had little effect, other than to draw some fresh attention to his platform. “We’re growing. We’re posting. We’re reaching new audiences,” Knyrik says in a phone interview from Moscow. “We’re not backing down.”
In the days since the threat, News Front has continued to pump out the same set of narratives: wildly exaggerating the dangers of vaccines made in the West, and offering paeans to the safety and efficacy of Russia’s alternative, Sputnik V. “Real Danger of Western Pfizer and Moderna Vaccines,” News Front blared in a typical headline on March 12. The article refers to the “horrific consequences” of taking these vaccines. It neglects to mention that both vaccines have been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration after scientific studies found them to be highly effective and safe.
That story’s spin is precisely what the Biden Administration has pledged to counter. “Russia is up to its old tricks,” a State Department spokesman told reporters on March 8. The campaign against U.S. vaccines, he added, “is potentially putting people at risk by spreading disinformation about vaccines that we know to be saving lives every day.” In a finding that was first reported in the Wall Street Journal the previous day, the State Department blamed this flood of disinformation on Russian intelligence services, which it accused of supporting News Front and three other Russian news outlets: New Eastern Outlook, Oriental Review and Rebel Inside.
Despite the warning from the White House, the U.S. government does not appear to be the force that groups like News Front fear. The real power in the information war now seems to lie with private tech companies, which began to crack down on News Front and its allies nearly a year ago by shutting down its accounts on the world’s biggest social networks.
Among the outlets that the Biden Administration targeted, News Front is by far the most successful and ambitious. It publishes in nine languages, including English, German and Spanish, and runs a 24-hour livestream that offers news, commentary and talk shows on its website. It occasionally breaks into the top 10 most popular news sites in the Russian-speaking world. Asked about its ties to the Russian intelligence services, Knyrik chortled and said, “To my great regret, we have no such ties or support from the special services.”
(The Kremlin, for its part, has also denied the allegations from the State Department. “Russia has never participated and does not intend to participate in such campaigns against other vaccines,” its spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on March 9.)
But the history of News Front, and the tenor of its coverage, suggests it does enjoy a close relationship with Russia’s military and spy agencies. The outlet was created in 2014 amid the Russian military takeover of Crimea, the region of Ukraine where News Front is still headquartered today.
In early March of that year, while Russian troops seized control of the region, Knyrik led a column of pro-Russian paramilitaries to the offices of the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism, which was the region’s leading independent news source at the time. “It was pretty traumatic,” says Natalia Kokorina, who was then one of the Center’s journalists. The men, more than a dozen in all, did not carry assault rifles. But most of them were dressed in camouflage, with balaclavas covering their faces. “They just barged in and started broadcasting from our briefing room,” Kokorina recalls.
During that first broadcast, Knyrik announced that the Center’s journalists could keep their jobs if they stopped “provoking” people to oppose the Russian occupation of Crimea. “We gave them a choice,” he tells TIME of those events. None of the journalists accepted the ultimatum. Instead, the Center’s newsroom relocated to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and News Front was established in its place.
Kokorina, who now works in Kyiv as an investigative reporter, says the takeover would have been impossible without the support of Russia’s occupying forces in Crimea. President Vladimir Putin has said he personally commanded that operation, which saw the Russian military and its main intelligence agency, the FSB, methodically stamp out all organized resistance to Russian rule. Knyrik, a Russian citizen who was in his mid-20s at the time, then became one of the Kremlin’s leading mouthpieces in Crimea. “I don’t know if they were helping him directly, but they sure didn’t get in his way,” Kokorina says of the Russian military and the FSB. “So he took over the whole media landscape in Crimea, piece by piece.”
The result has been a small but scrappy propaganda outlet that has served the Kremlin’s interests well. On its YouTube channels and across social media, News Front has broadcast fawning coverage of Russian troops and paramilitaries, even as they waged a brutal war in eastern Ukraine, seizing towns and factories along Russia’s western border. When the Russian military intervened in the civil war in Syria in 2015, News Front’s reporters went along for the ride, securing embeds with Russian and Syrian troops loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
By the start of last year, as COVID-19 began to spread around the world, News Front turned the focus of its coverage to a series of wild conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. Its reports have falsely claimed that the U.S. government created the novel coronavirus as a “bioweapon” and intentionally infected migrants with it. It also falsely suggested that Western billionaires, including Bill Gates and George Soros, could be partly responsible for COVID-19, and that Gates may be planning to use the virus as a way to implant microchips in people around the world.
Though these articles have no basis in fact, they have found an audience. According to a recent analysis of Russian disinformation published by the State Department, the YouTube channels News Front controlled had nearly half a million subscribers and nearly half a billion total views as of April 2020. The following month, Facebook moved to block all accounts associated with News Front, part of a broader crackdown against what the platform called “coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal.” Around the same time, YouTube shut down the outlet’s main channels, a decision that the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced as “arbitrary censorship” of Russian media.
In his interview with TIME, Knyrik seemed to take pride in becoming the target of these takedowns. He compared them to the deletion of Donald Trump’s social media accounts in January, following the riot that the then-President incited at the Capitol. “Even before Trump, we heroically earned a ban on all social networks,” says Knyrik.
Still, he concedes that the bans devastated News Front’s ability to reach Western audiences. Its global reach is now a fraction of what it was before YouTube and Facebook took down its accounts. From its studios in Crimea, the outlet now broadcasts mostly on its website, relying on a network of online supporters to share its livestreams on social media.
The pressure, while painful, has an upside for Knyrik. It has allowed him to cast News Front as the victim of censorship, a lonely warrior against the American monopoly on information. Over time, he says, that veneer will draw more people to his platform, people looking for what he describes as an alternative to the mainstream media. “Wherever we show up, they will try to block us,” Knyrik says. “But we still won’t hide. We want everyone to know who we are.”