Inside The Russian Propaganda Mill Beaming Out Of A Florida Strip Mall

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When Ben Swann delivers a news report, he looks and sounds like any other TV anchor:  conventionally attractive, slick hair, clad in an unremarkable but well-tailored suit.

But unlike thousands of TV reporters around the country, Swann is a registered Russian agent. While taking millions of dollars to produce branded content for Russian state broadcaster RT over the past year, Swann has sought to build a media platform that aims to serve as a means of broadcasting January 6 conspiracy theories, RFK Jr., Alex Jones, RT’s stable of hosts, and the producers of Plandemic. 

The network hosts programming from influential faded stars like former CBS reporter Lara Logan and ex-CNN anchor Rick Sanchez. Logan is currently publishing a multi-part docuseries attempting to rewrite the history of January 6, casting it as a “fed-surrection” and featuring gauzy interviews with GatewayPundit founder Jim Hoft to rehash the Ray Epps conspiracy theory. Swann is touting an upcoming series on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — set to come out next year.

Swann’s project is one of many right-wing efforts to supplant YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the mainstream media with a network insulated from attempts to verify that the content has a basis in reality. But unlike the others, Swann has informed the Department of Justice that he is taking millions of dollars from the Russian government. 

One of Swann’s companies, Rebel Media Productions, told the DOJ in a FARA filing last year that it is working on behalf of a Russian state-backed entity, while two other media firms which Swann controls are listed as doing business at a Florida address located in a strip mall alongside an RV repair shop and a storefront offering businesses tools to help them with “swag management.” One source familiar told TPM that Swann has built a TV studio at the South Florida address to produce content for his network.

Per the FARA disclosures, Swann took in $4.5 million from a Russian government-backed firm between March 2023 and August 2023 alone to produce content for shows branded for RT. Per the FARA filings, the shows are not targeted at American audiences, but rather at countries across the global south. They will, the filings state, address topics like “the United States and NATO continuing to spread war around the world,” “the economic warfare waged by the United States and its allies” and “transgender issues in the United States.”

Swann’s network is already producing the content. Some of it picks up on old RT standbys like Manila Chan and former CIA analyst John Kiriakou. Swann’s outfits are verified on X, formerly known as Twitter, where one of them has featured Logan’s conspiracy theories about Jan. 6. The latest episode features an extended interview with Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) in which he proclaims that “the American people are going to be stunned into acceptance of the reality that our FBI, our DOJ, and in some cases head people at our intelligence services have been corrupted by power.” 

Swann did not return TPM’s request for comment. Attempts to reach others involved with the projects were unsuccessful. 

Just Asking Questions

Though, according to FARA disclosures, the lucrative relationship with Russia began in 2022, Swann has been attracting attention as a far-right media figure for the better part of a decade. He is a typical example of a certain strain of influencer that has emerged in recent years: He preens as a near-martyr for free speech, a counterpoint to what he derides as news narratives manufactured by the establishment.

Many who define themselves in opposition to the American state use that position as a lucrative money-making opportunity, and Swann is no different. Where he stands out is one of the sources of his financing: a Russian government-owned news organization. 

Per the FARA disclosure, Swann’s client via Rebel Media Productions is a Russian non-profit called TV Novosti. TV Novosti owns RT, and is itself controlled by Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. Swann told the DOJ in his FARA filing he “believe[s] that TV Novosti is an autonomous organization but it does receive funding from the Russian government through the Russian Federation.”

Swann claimed in court filings in recent years to have lost millions due to COVID and election denial-related deplatforming efforts, and faces a $200,000 lien from the IRS on his Atlanta home. But he’s raked in millions from the Russians and, per one visitor to his operation, is building a sizable TV production studio at the strip mall address from which to expand. 

Swann was born outside of El Paso, the son of prominent local evangelical homeschoolers. He grew up in a family of 10, and was not the only one of his siblings to go into media — his brother, Dominic, became a photojournalist, covering events including Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. invasion of Iraq for CNN.

Swann started his broadcasting career in local TV, covering local politics in California, Texas and Ohio while moonlighting as a Southern Baptist Church-ordained pastor. 

He brings showmanship to his presentations, both televised and personal. In one video at a 2020 Bitcoin enthusiast meetup, Swann referred to himself as a “one-man band,” saying that he initially entered journalism to make money before becoming enraged at what he characterized as hypocrisy by national media outlets. 

That entrepreneurialism and anti-establishment positioning has led to bouts of intense public attention on Swann. 

In 2012, as a reporter covering the Cincinnati city council, Swann scored an interview with President Barack Obama, peppering him with questions about the droning of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. The next year, he unearthed information that fed the right-wing media beast around the IRS targeting scandal.

With the years, Swann moved farther towards the fringe. 

While at an Atlanta CBS affiliate, Swann made national news by lending credence to Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory which holds that the Clinton campaign was secretly communicating about pedophilia via pizza orders and napkin placement, during a program called “reality check.” 

“To be clear, not one single email in the Podesta emails discusses child sex trafficking or pedophilia. That is a fact,” Swann told his audience. “But there are dozens of what seem to be strangely worded emails dealing with pizza and handkerchiefs. Self-described online investigators say that those words in the emails about pizza and the talk of handkerchiefs is code language used by pedophiles.” 

He left the network shortly thereafter. 

The Pizzagate report garnered Swann a devoted online following which took his own characterization at his word: that he was an independent teller of stories that the broader media wouldn’t touch for their searing truth — a perfect brand for YouTube, Facebook and podcasts, which he cultivated after departing mainstream news broadcasting. 

But concerns over Russian-backed disinformation campaigns in the 2016 election, COVID-19 and Trump’s Stop the Steal campaign led to a crackdown by massive tech platforms on the conspiracy theorizing stories Swann offered his audience. Swann lost his channels. He said the deplatforming was a painful loss of a once-lucrative business: in a lawsuit filed in January 2023, he claimed that his company at the time had projected $1.2 million in earnings from podcast sponsorships alone. The IRS filed a lien on his house in July 2022. 

Sovereign Actions

As income from mainstream tech channels dried up, Swann formed three new companies. One was Rebel Media, the FARA-registered firm. But there are two others: Sovren Media and Truth In Media.

What financial relationship may exist between the three firms is unclear. Sovren Media crossposts content from Rebel Media and Truth in Media, though Truth in Media appears nearly entirely devoted at the moment to Lara Logan’s January 6 project. 

Rebel Media does not appear to have its own platform. Instead, the four shows produced under its Russia contract, all of which used to run on RT, appear on Sovren.One show, helmed by former CIA analyst Jon Kiriakou, has focused on the allegation that the CIA was operating biological weapons labs in Ukraine. Another, hosted by Trump 2016 surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes, addresses the “Global Queer Agenda,” amid other “cultural” topics. 

The offerings on the network make Sovren feel a little like the media equivalent of the cantina scene in Star Wars: a collection of the dregs and outcasts of the universe, a place for them all to gather and express themselves somewhat coherently. RFK Jr.’s nonprofit Children Health Defense broadcasts what appear to be promotions for his campaign; one recent video described the COVID-19 vaccine as a violation of human experimentation bans established by “the Nuremberg Code.” It also allows Alex Jones to broadcast his Infowars show where he most recently hawked a documentary about a “blueprint for global enslavement” and a clip in which Jones demands to know: Why do they want your baby’s blood? 

Swann’s networks also have more hinged programs. Former CNN host Rick Sanchez has a show called Direct Impact where he discusses current events (No Audit For Ukraine, reads one title). 

The slate of issues the shows focus on — anti-trans messaging, criticisms of U.S. and European imperialism, anti-vaccine campaigns  — reflects the trial and error approach that homegrown conspiracy theorists use too. Watching a Donald Trump rally is to see the process in action, as he tries out lines and disregards the ones that don’t get a big response. 

The operation appears to be using that familiar equation on a much larger scale. As Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Law School who has written extensively about conspiracy theories, said, these local producers can plug in whatever resonates more with the specific audience into a more general conspiracy theory framework. 

“It’s the same way antisemitism used to be — Jews everywhere are controlling everything. They can be groomers or whatever it is you are especially concerned about regarding the innocence of children,” he said. “George Soros can stand in for Jews in all the kinds of typical roles of wealthy financiers — and that can be in Hungary, in the U.S., anywhere where there’s right-wing concern about international money and influence.” 

From Russia to Florida

The network appears to have attracted interest — and, potentially, funding — over the years from influential figures in the right-wing conspiracy theory space. Internal chats obtained by TPM showed Sovren employees discussing potential funding from CEO Patrick Byrne and John McAfee, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate and businessman. 

In December 2019, Sovren announced a seed round of funding from a business incubator co-founded by McAfee, who died in 2021. 

Per the FARA filings, Swann first received two payments of $304,896 from his Moscow employers in May and July 2022, to pay the salaries of RT employees after the network stopped production amid the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The filings say the content is being produced for international audiences — the huge geographic swaths of India, China, South America and Africa — rather than domestic ones. 

The targets weren’t necessarily surprising to experts. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a concerted effort to court China and India in recent years, and has made inroads with various African leaders

“Rivals in international politics always use misinformation and disinformation to advance their causes — and that’s especially true during wars,” Russel Muirhead, chair of Dartmouth University’s government department and co-author of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy,” told TPM. 

But it’s far from clear that the distinction Swann made in FARA, that the content is intended for consumption outside of the United States, carries any real meaning in practice. The videos are produced in English and are easily accessible in the U.S.

The war in Ukraine is a point of particular salience. Obviously, Russia has a personal stake in filtering its home team propaganda through these various shows. But there’s also a growing opposition to continuing to fund the war in the U.S. — particularly on the right flank of the Republican party — that the hosts-turned-conspiracy theorists could use to push people down the rabbit hole, toward topics entirely divorced from and far more bizarre than U.S. foreign spending. 

“It’s a very odd thing for the U.S. to be deeply invested in a war that’s thousands of miles and oceans away,” Muirhead said. “If people can see that as part of a nefarious plan to dominate the world, then that makes more sense of it.” 

The whole operation, beaming internationally-bound conspiracy theories out of a weed-choked strip mall, captures how easy it is to cast the net so alarmingly wide. 

It’s a well tested, and lucrative, formula. And it’s helmed by ex-reporters, who have special skills in telling stories and presenting information in a compelling and authoritative way. In some ways, the operation’s home base is as evocative of the current moment in right-wing politics as the rest of it. 

“Everybody comes to Florida to scam,” Fenster quipped.  

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Notable Replies

  1. “Everybody comes to Florida to scam,” Fenster quipped.

    A close second, too

    Come back, we weren’t firing at you.

  2. The one thing to this guy’s credit is that he’s actually registered as a foreign agent. The only thing. Otherwise, he’s just another grifter, preying on the terminally bewildered, while Putin lines his pockets.

  3. Avatar for ajm ajm says:

    Libel suits waiting to happen. This guy has some money to make it economically rewarding.

  4. Evangelical, huh? Well, we know who is against America.

  5. So Swann was a home schooled Evangelical that went into journalism for the money? His parents must be so proud.

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