A Russian media organ agreed to pay American conspiracy theorist Benjamin Swann about $6.8 million to produce Kremlin propaganda on topics like the war in Ukraine and U.S. “culture wars,” according to new Foreign Agents Registration Act registration records filed with the Department of Justice.
The registration statement, dated Aug. 5, claims the contract is “solely for the purpose of creating video content for tv markets in India, China and South America” and “NOT for distribution or dissemination INSIDE the territory of the United States.” But Russia’s propaganda often spreads quickly online. These programs are part of an ongoing Kremlin “information battle” following global backlash to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Axios, which first reported on the filings.
A youth pastor turned news anchor who used his platform to spread debunked conspiracy theories related to “pizzagate” and the Sandy Hook mass shooting before CBS fired him in 2018, Swann registered Friday as an agent of TV Novosti. DOJ described TV Novosti as “the Russian government entity responsible for the worldwide broadcasts of the RT Network” when its production company, T&R Productions LLC, registered under FARA in 2017.
Swann did not return OpenSecrets’ request for comment.
Swann previously worked for RT – then called Russia Today – between 2013 and 2015, according to reporting by the Daily Beast and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After CBS fired him, Swann revived his “alternative mainstream media” site, Truth in Media. He is also the CEO of Sovren, a self-described “uncensored, blockchain-based, decentralized news and entertainment platform” that hosts content creators known for spreading disproven conspiracies about topics like COVID-19 and monkeypox. Russia has weaponized similar conspiracy theories on social media to sow discord in the U.S.
CNN reported in March that RT America’s production company would cease production and lay off staff on March 4, less than two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 as several platforms imposed bans or restrictions on RT America in an attempt to curb the spread of disinformation around Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But Kremlin propaganda has continued to spread online through other channels. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank, found that online content creators self-described as “independent journalists” have continued to spread misinformation and disinformation to increasingly large audiences. A new report by NewsGuard identified dozens of new websites amplifying Russian propaganda with dozens of new sites added since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The new registration indicates TV Novosti is also continuing to pour millions of dollars into propaganda, including payments to laid-off RT America employees.
TV Novosti already wired two payments totaling nearly $305,000 to Swann on May 11 and July 25, FARA registration records show, to pay “employees laid off by RT America who were unable to be paid by T&R productions.” The first wire came months before Swann registered on Aug. 5. FARA requires foreign agents to file a registration statement within 10 days of agreeing to be an agent of a foreign principal.
In FARA registration filings, Swann claims to “believe” TV Novosti is an “autonomous organization” but admits it is funded “in part” by the Russian government, echoing similar statements by other foreign agents of Russia’s propaganda operation that DOJ has compelled to register under FARA. founded by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti i the assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Andrew D’Anieri, pointed out that the Kremlin budgeted more money to finance TV Novosti than any other media entity in Russia this year.
According to OpenSecrets’ analysis of FARA and Lobbying Disclosure Act records, the bulk of the roughly $40 million in payments foreign agents and lobbyists reported receiving from Russian government media entities broadcasting propaganda targeting the U.S. last year came from RIA Novosti, which paid nearly $32 million to T&R Productions LLC in 2021 alone.
While U.S. lobbying firms severed ties with Russian clients after its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s spending on U.S.-targeted propaganda efforts through its own media entities has consistently dwarfed other Russian interests’ spending on lobbying and influence operations reported under FARA in recent years.
Since 2017, foreign agents and lobbyists reported receiving $187 million in payments from Russian clients for lobbying or influence campaigns – including the propaganda efforts – during that time. Foreign agents of RIA Novosti and Rossiya Segodnya, which administer global broadcasts of Russia Today and Sputnik, reported receiving more than $160 million of that to broadcast Russian government propaganda in the U.S.
An annual salary of $420,000 is only a fraction of the money Swann stands to gain as a registered agent. Swann will oversee the production of 50 episodes of four English language shows – 360 View, Cost of Everything, The M.O. and The Whistleblowers. The total cost of the episodes could reach about $6.4 million through April 30, 2023, contracts filed with DOJ show.
Swann incorporated Rebel Media Productions LLC on March 24 in Florida and used the company to register under FARA. OpenSecrets confirmed the D.C.-based consulting firm Rebel Media Productions is in no way affiliated or associated with Swann’s new limited-liability company.
One of the shows Swann will produce is “The M.O. w/ Manila Chan.” Chan describes herself as an “independent journalist” but is labeled as Russia state-affiliated media on Twitter. In addition to his $420,000 base salary from TV Novosti, Swann will receive an additional $50,816 per month from TV Novosti for The M.O. plus $1,270,400 – $25,408 per episode – to cover the cost of creation.
Chan runs a site called Slanted Media, hosts a podcast and uses various other platforms like YouTube, where her channel contains video clips of her media coverage. The channel description lists Chan as a “longtime (former) anchor and reporter for RT America” but she regularly posts videos of herself co-hosting Fault Lines, a Sputnik radio program produced by Ghebi LLC, also a FARA registrant. The program also airs live on Rumble, a video platform popular with right-wing users and conservatives who claim “Big Tech” is censoring them. As of Aug. 9, Chan continues to co-host the program.
With Chan, Swann will produce programs highlighting that “western countries, the United States and NATO [are] continuing to spread war around the world,” FARA filings show. The M.O. will also bring in “experts” to break down the impact of these policies in the countries Kremlin propaganda is targeting.
The M.O. is one of four shows Swann agreed to produce for the Kremlin. Under the contract, he will also receive nearly $1.3 million from Stark Industries LLC for 50 episodes of The Whistleblowers and more than $2.5 million from Kart LLC for 50 episodes of The 360 View.
The contract in FARA registration records lists Stark Industries’ address as a post office box in Yerevan, Armenia. The address listed for Kart LLC matches a Hilton Garden Inn just off the Moscow Automobile Ring Road, or MKAD, that lines the city border of Moscow.
Kart LLC will also pay Swann almost $1.3 million for 50 episodes of The Cost of Everything, which will explore “culture battles in the west,” according to FARA filings.
“From the halting of free speech in Canada to Transgender issues in the United States, there is a culture battle raging that much of the rest of the world finds simply fascinating,” the contract between Swann and Kart LLC states.