burning american flag
© Reuters / Caitlin Ochs
A demonstrator sets fire to an American flag during a protest against police violence in Portland, Oregon.
Mainstream media have denounced RT's Ruptly video agency for documenting Portland protesters burning Bibles, dismissing the unaltered footage as 'Russian disinfo' in an attempt at bad-faith 'shoot the messenger' gaslighting.

Protesters gather around a burning Bible, chanting "F*** Trump," as they neatly drapean American flag over the flames. A few of the demonstrators rub their hands over the tiny fire, aping warming themselves as the flames devour the book. The 90-second clip was part of a 4-hour livestream.

It's an incendiary image (no pun intended) - protesters already denounced from some corners as anti-American taking aim at beloved national and religious symbols - but Ruptly didn't attempt to interpret the video beyond explaining the events took place on the 65th day of protests, after federal agents had left the courthouse. The images speak for themselves.


But according to the New York Times, the video's rapid spread through social media and the conservative infosphere was not the organic result of its newsworthy content that appeared to support their political beliefs - it was instead a deliberate Kremlin propaganda campaign, "one of the first viral Russian disinformation hits of the 2020 presidential campaign."


The Times doesn't explicitly accuse the Ruptly photographer of faking the video, but the outlet does everything else it can to cast the clip's authenticity into doubt - "the truth," the paper insists, "was far more mundane" than the outpouring of dramatic headlines would have one believe.

Not only was the fire "far from the main action of the protest," the Times wrote, claiming this was obvious from how the footage "looks and sounds," but the act itself was hardly the shocking display it's been presented as: "A few protesters among the many thousands appear to have burned a single Bible - and possibly a second - for kindling to start a bigger fire."

Anything beyond that, they suggested, was Russian disinfo, and the conservative commentators who "took the bait" and ran with the story are useful idiots misled by those notorious sowers of division. Case closed?

This simplistic morality play raises more questions than it answers, starting with "how many Bibles is it considered acceptable to burn during a 'peaceful' protest?"

Ruptly's footage was unaltered, and its original title - "Portland demonstrators set Bible and US flag alight on 65th night of protests" - is merely a straightforward description of the video's contents. The video description is no more speculative than the title, and a media agency (no matter where it's based) can hardly be blamed for what viewers read into its footage. Far from "disinfo," Ruptly has accrued a total of 1,900 minutes of live footage from Portland between the end of July and the start of August, showing all aspects of the demonstrations. One viral clip taken from the live coverage shows federal agents tackling a woman and pinning her to the ground. The video racked up 5.2 million views.

It was conservative social media provocateur Ian Miles Cheong who claimed "left wing activists" had brought "a stack of Bibles" for a religious-themed bonfire in front of the Portland courthouse - a claim that was then picked up by everyone from Republican Senator Ted Cruz to Donald Trump Jr. But that doesn't matter to the Times: all subsequent coverage was fruit of a poisonous (Russian) tree.


Except Ruptly wasn't the only agency to film the incident. The New York Post got its own shot of the burning bible and flag, and local CBS affiliate KOIN wrote about the burning Bible on a live newsfeed of the protest before Ruptly had even posted the clip.

It's no longer rare to see mainstream media running interference for antifa protesters when they commit disturbing acts. Buzzfeed wrote a lengthy defense of a BLM "raid" on Grace Baptist Church in Troy, New York, explaining the pastor's "bigoted" views in detail and implying they justified the horde of shouting demonstrators laying waste to the house of worship. Oh, and RT retweeted the footage, so that story is disinformation, too.

Self-styled propaganda experts and academics have been low-key lobbying - through misuse of the term in academic papers and morally-bankrupt "experiments" - to redefine "disinformation" itself as "facts arranged to serve a purpose" by governments the US doesn't like, and mainstream media have eagerly latched on to this new definition. As a result - and with the US election just months away - the message matters less every day. It's the messenger that determines whether something can be trusted.