Over 150 Russian fake news sites linked to former Florida deputy sheriff, report finds

More than 150 fake local news websites pushing Russian propaganda to U.S. audiences are connected to John Mark Dougan, an American former law enforcement officer living in Moscow, according to a research report published Wednesday by NewsGuard, a firm that monitors misinformation.

The websites, with names like DC Weekly, New York News Daily and Boston Times, look similar to those of legitimate local news outlets and have already succeeded in spreading a number of false stories surrounding the war in Ukraine. Experts warn they could be used to launder disinformation about the 2024 election. 

In an interview over WhatsApp, Dougan denied involvement with the websites. “Never heard of them,” he said. 

Dougan, a former Marine and police officer, fled his home in Florida in 2016 to evade criminal charges related to a massive doxxing campaign he was accused of launching against public officials and was given asylum by the Russian government. Most recently, Dougan has posed as a journalist in Ukraine’s Donbas region, testifying at Russian public hearings and making frequent appearances on Russian state TV

He’s now part of a small club of Western expats who have become purveyors of English-language propaganda for Russia. Researchers and cybersecurity companies had previously linked Dougan to the sites. The NewsGuard report published Wednesday is the latest to implicate him in the fake news ring. 

Academic research from Clemson University linked Dougan to the network of fake news websites last year after one of them was found to share an IP address with other sites he ran, including his personal website.

In an interview, Darren Linvill, co-director of the Watt Family Innovation Center Media Forensics Hub at Clemson, called Dougan “a tool of the broader Russian disinformation machine” whose websites “are just one of several mechanisms by which these narratives are distributed.”

Linvill noted the fake news websites had lately veered away from the narrow focus of undermining support for Ukraine. Recent fake articles include the false claims that the FBI wiretapped former President Donald Trump’s office at Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Florida, and that the CIA backed a Ukrainian plot to rig the election against Trump.  

“There is no question we are beginning to see a shift in focus toward the U.S. election,” Linvill said. 

Posing as local news, the sites host articles about crime, politics and sports, most of which seem to have been generated with artificial intelligence tools and are attributed to journalists who do not exist. Interspersed within the general news are articles that disparage the U.S., exalt Russia and spread disinformation about topics from the wars in Ukraine and Gaza to Covid vaccines.

Researchers say sites attributed to Dougan are marred with telltale signs of his signature, including early website registration records, IP addresses, similar image headers and layouts, being built with WordPress software, seemingly AI-generated prompts mistakenly left in copy and error messages at the ends of articles.

The reach of the campaigns varies. Some of the sites remained active for just weeks with little to no pickup in the wider media. But some fake news stories have gained traction, including several recent posts using forged documents that falsely claimed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was improperly using foreign aid to enrich himself. Last month, a story on the fake news site The London Crier said Zelenskyy had spent 20 million pounds on a mansion previously owned by King Charles III. 

It followed a story posted to DC Weekly in November that falsely claimed Zelenskyy had used American aid money to buy two yachts. 

Both rumors relied, as the network often does, on videos posted to YouTube by newly created accounts. A site like DC Weekly will publish fake news stories using videos of seemingly AI-generated “leaks” or examples of whistleblowing, and Russian influencers and bot networks will then spread those articles, according to the Clemson researchers. Ultimately, the fake articles are reported as fact by pro-Kremlin media outlets and, in some of the most successful cases, by Western politicos and pundits. 

The rumor about Zelenskyy’s buying yachts was later promoted by Republican members of Congress, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Sen. JD Vance of Ohio. 

The author of the new report, McKenzie Sadeghi, NewsGuard’s editor, pointed to the network’s sophisticated use of AI to produce content and make narratives seem credible. 

“In the wrong hands, this technology can be used to spread disinformation at scale,” Sadeghi said. “With this network, we’re seeing that play out exactly.”

What specific support Dougan receives from Russia is unclear. In May, the cybersecurity company Recorded Future reported a “realistic possibility” that the network receives strategic guidance, support or oversight from the Russian government. In March, The New York Times reported that the fake local news ring “appears to involve remnants” of the Internet Research Agency, the troll factory created by the late Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin to influence the 2016 presidential election. Previous reporting on Dougan and his more dubious claims — including that he was in possession of leaked documents from murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and secret tapes belonging to Jeffrey Epstein — suggests Dougan may be pursuing wealth, clout or operating from some other motive in addition to a state-sanctioned political agenda.

Dougan was an early creator of fake websites. After he resigned from his job as a sheriff’s deputy in Palm Beach County, Florida, and was fired months later from a subsequent one in Windham, Maine, over sexual harassment claims, he built a network of websites that focused on what he claimed was widespread corruption in Windham, naming local police and town officials in articles. He also reportedly launched a campaign doxxing thousands of federal agents, judges and law enforcement officers, posting their home addresses and salacious allegations online. By 2015 he was operating several websites with official-sounding names like DCWeekly.com and DCPost.org, which hosted made-up articles. In 2016, he fled to Russia following an FBI raid of his home to evade charges linked to his doxxing efforts. 

YouTube banned Dougan last year. On Telegram, he attributed the ban to videos he uploaded alleging a Russian mission to destroy U.S.-run bioweapons labs in Ukraine, a false narrative that would take hold as a justification for Russia’s invasion. Dougan’s ban came on the heels of a report from NewsGuard that highlighted the pro-Russian propaganda on his channel. 

According to co-CEO Steven Brill, NewsGuard’s earlier report and Dougan’s subsequent ban led to a harassment campaign against him. Brill says in a coming book that Dougan impersonated an FBI officer in phone calls to him, left threatening messages and posted YouTube videos showing aerial shots of Brill’s home.

Over WhatsApp, Dougan defended his videos about Brill, citing NewsGuard’s “partnership with the US government” to have his content removed. 

There is no evidence NewsGuard acted in concert with or on behalf of the U.S. government when it investigated Dougan. Asked for proof of such a partnership, Dougan sent a link to his own video, a 31-minute monologue laden with conspiracy theories. He’d reposted it to YouTube.

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