BARKIN LADI, Nigeria - Farmers and herders once lived harmoniously on Nigeria's bucolic central plateau, but when Amos Lenji, a farmer, caught a young herdsman grazing cattle in his cornfields this October, he feared for his life.
His fear was rooted in a massacre that took place in June. More than 200 people, mostly farmers, were slaughtered by a gang of masked men dressed in black who marauded through the county of Barkin Ladi. Although no one was apprehended, the killers are suspected to be herdsmen.
It was the biggest bloodbath yet in a cycle of retaliatory killings between farmers and herders competing for space across Nigeria's hinterlands. At least 1,300 were killed in just the first six months of 2018, according to the International Crisis Group. That is more than six times as many as were killed in Nigeria in the same period by Boko Haram, one of Africa's deadliest terrorist groups.
Nigeria's population has grown exponentially and is projected to surpass the United States' by 2050, although Nigeria is 11 times smaller in area than the United States. Amid the boom, land has become increasingly scarce, and disputes over ownership are frequently turning bloody. New generations of farmers are planting on land traditionally used for grazing, and out of desperation, herders are grazing their cattle in fields still full of crops, destroying harvests. Many in the two groups now see each other as existential threats.
The near-constant violence has catapulted the farmer-herder crisis to the top of an already long list of security concerns in Nigeria. The country is roughly half Christian and half Muslim, and because farmers tend to be Christian and herders tend to be Muslim, the crisis has worsened the friction between the two religious communities. So far, Nigeria's government has shown little capacity to prevent the fighting from spiraling further.
In the absence of an effective government response, locals have cobbled together groups of peacekeepers who have become the plateau's de facto law enforcement. Barkin Ladi's vigilantes, as they're known, are particularly effective because they include farmers and herders. Bitrus Dung Pam, the local group leader, says he commands 30 times as many recruits as there are police in the whole county.
"When people see us, they trust us," Pam said. "It's not like the army or the police. We are the community."
Pam was who Lenji thought of, standing there in the cornfield. He picked up his cellphone and asked for immediate help. The herdsman ran away.
"I had no other option," Lenji said.
Nigeria's police and security forces are underequipped, underpaid and often deployed to unfamiliar areas of this diverse country of almost 200 million people.
Vigilante groups have proliferated out of necessity. They have formed a national umbrella organization that says it has nearly 350,000 members. They fill a giant law enforcement vacuum, but they also represent a homegrown approach to peacekeeping.
They build trust by settling not only potentially explosive disputes between farmers and herders, but also smaller ones. The process often resembles a court proceeding. On a recent day, vigilantes spent hours smoothing out a disagreement over money among women trying to raise chickens collectively.
The volunteers are everyday people, mechanics and bricklayers, men and women, and Muslims and Christians, and they represent all the plateau's ethnic groups, including the two largest, the Berom and Fulani. Most farmers here are Christian and Berom, while most herders are Muslim and Fulani.
That inclusiveness commands the respect of local officials.
"No one will accuse them of being partisan or conniving with one tribe against the other," said Yakubu Dati, a spokesman for the state government. "That is what we want, that is what this administration is all about, and we are doing everything to encourage other vigilante groups to emulate that so that peace can return permanently."
But that doesn't translate into any tangible state assistance. The volunteers pay for their own uniforms, and they carry hunting rifles and rubber pellets from home. In Barkin Ladi, they coordinate their patrols from donated office space in a small house and have just one vehicle.
They maintain a heavy presence along backcountry roads and man dozens of checkpoints in spots where violence has flared in the past. Since many are guarding their own villages, they simply walk to their posts. They are everywhere the police are not.
"If you call the police, they may tell you, 'We don't have fuel, give us some, and we will help you,' " said Edward G.M. Bot, the traditional leader of Barkin Ladi's Berom community. "It is not like that with the vigilantes. The level of determination is totally different. They show up immediately. They stay overnight. They know who we are."
Maj. Gen. Augustine Agundu, who commands Operation Safe Haven, the Nigerian military's response to unrest on the plateau, said the volunteers were essential to his mission. The military, police and even aid groups have organized training for them, and Operation Safe Haven coordinates some of its patrolling activity with them.
The Nigerian government has struggled to come up with a comprehensive policy to address the crisis. In some states, grazing has been banned entirely, while in others, herders have been asked to move their cattle to ranges set aside for them. On the plateau, the main policy seems to be Operation Safe Haven's military intervention and tacit support for the community-led effort.
"The vigilantes are our eyes," Agundu said.
The violence between farmers and herders is Nigeria's deadliest, but it is just one of three major conflicts exposing the fraying social fabric in this country.
For a decade, Boko Haram has terrorized the northeast, killing tens of thousands, burning entire villages and kidnapping an untold number of children. And in the Niger Delta in the country's south, guerrilla groups continue to target foreign oil companies and the government, slowing Nigeria's oil-dependent economy.
All these crises have led local communities to arm themselves against perceived enemies, while in the background, gargantuan challenges such as rapid population growth, climate change and religious rivalries deepen.
On the central plateau, Berom farmers are in the majority. Many believe that they are indigenous and that nomadic Fulani herders are either interlopers or invaders. The same dynamic is playing out across semiarid parts of Africa, but most violently here, where the plateau's edges seem to provide a closed arena for battle.
"I won't be sad if all the Fulani leave this place," said Rose Mashinging, 36, a farmer who lives in a village that was attacked in June. "It is Berom land anyhow."
The polarization has penetrated Nigeria's politics. The country is set to hold a presidential election in February, and many in the mostly Christian south accuse President Muhammadu Buhari, an ethnic Fulani, of siding with herders.
His predecessor was voted out partly because he was perceived as weak against Boko Haram. Buhari's reelection will partly rely on convincing skeptics that he is serious about peace in the Middle Belt, an ethnically diverse band across the country that is home to Nigeria's Federal Capital Territory, though his government has done little to intervene in the conflict so far.
On the plateau, Fulani leaders say that members of the state security forces, who are mostly Christian, actively discriminate against the herders, and the leaders also allege that security personnel have engaged in revenge attacks. (Agundu, the commander of Operation Safe Haven, denies those charges.) Local ardos, or Fulani traditional headmen, complained that police don't take cases they file seriously. And reports of Berom farmers stealing cattle are common, and the subsequent clashes often result in the deaths of herdsmen.
"It is a mess of poisoned relationships - layers of grievance that accumulated for generations are exploding," said Adam Higazi, an anthropological researcher at the University of Amsterdam who has been based on the plateau for more than a decade. "Most people on the plateau don't think of anything else now except the animosity."
The vigilantes' biggest hurdle is that they don't have the strongest tool available to state law enforcement: lethal weapons. Without them, they can be easily overrun by the kind of marauding gang that terrorized Barkin Ladi in June. With such weapons, however, they might become more like soldiers or bandits themselves and be implicated in the killings.
Idris Gidado, the ardo of the villages worst affected in June, said that he would ordinarily commend the civilian peacekeepers for their bravery but that a recent incident had disillusioned him.
A Fulani man from Gidado's own village had robbed a family of farmers. The volunteers caught him and handed him over to the police. The police released him quickly, and the ardo suspects that money was exchanged. The man robbed another family, and the sequence of events was repeated. In late October, the man raped a woman in his village, the ardo says.
"We want the vigilantes to succeed," Gidado said. "But there is no system of justice here to allow that."
The local police commissioner, Austin Agbonlahor, said he did not doubt the ardo's story, but he said no formal complaint had been lodged.
Most of the tens of thousands of people who have been displaced by the fighting are too fearful to return home. Maren Zachariah's entire village, Garwaza, was abandoned in June. Garwaza was ransacked by the attackers, and its central church - with its fresco of Jesus and painted map of Africa - was left gutted and burned. It has been colonized by thousands of bees.
"We want to return, but the government doesn't provide security. They only come as far as the nearest town. And our vigilantes can warn us, but they can't save us," Zachariah said. "The big trouble started on a sunny day like today. It can happen again any time."
Amid the distrust, Barkin Ladi's multiethnic vigilantes are setting an example for peaceful coexistence.
Mangwei Mashinging, the brother of the farmer who wishes the Fulani would leave the plateau, said he thinks peace is possible. That is why he joined the volunteer group.
"We thank God for the Fulani," he said. He says Fulani neighbors saved many farmers during June's massacre. "It is not as if the world is so simple - that Fulanis are bad and Beroms are good. Both groups have both kinds of people. We have to be on the side of peace."
In October, when the vigilantes brought together Amos Lenji, his farmer neighbors and the family of the herdsman whose livestock trampled their cornfields to discuss compensation, everyone was a bit surprised to find out that the opposing parties shared close family friends.
The tension lifted. The farmers proposed that instead of paying for the damaged crops, the herdsman's kin pay their mediators for fuel to keep doing their work. The two sides shook hands and headed home.
This project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.
SALISBURY, England - The initial plan was a Cold War classic - brutal yet simple. Two Russian agents would slip onto the property of a turncoat spy in Britain and daub his front door with a rare military-grade poison designed to produce an agonizing and untraceable death.
But when the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was botched, the mission quickly shifted. Within hours, according to British and U.S. officials who closely followed the events, a very different kind of intelligence operation was underway, this one involving scores of operatives and accomplices and a scheme straight out of the Kremlin's 21st-century communications playbook - the construction of an elaborate fog machine to make the initial crime disappear.
Dozens of false narratives and conspiracy theories began popping up almost immediately, the first of 46 bogus story lines put out by Russian-controlled media and Twitter accounts and even by senior Russian officials, according to a tabulation by The Washington Post - all of them sowing doubt about Russia's involvement in the March 4 assassination attempt. Ranging from the plausible to the fantastical, the stories blamed a toxic spill, Ukrainian activists, the CIA, British Prime Minister Theresa May and even Skripal himself.
The brazenness of the attempt to kill a Russian defector turned British citizen at his home in southwest England outraged Western governments and led to the expulsion of some 150 Russian diplomats by more than two dozen countries, including the United States. Yet, more than eight months later, analysts see a potential for greater harm in the kind of heavily coordinated propaganda barrage Russia launched after the assassination attempt failed.
Intelligence agencies have tracked at least a half-dozen such distortion campaigns since 2014, each aimed, officials say, at undermining Western and international investigative bodies and making it harder for ordinary citizens to separate fact from falsehood. They say such disinformation operations are now an integral part of Russia's arsenal - both foreign policy tool and asymmetrical weapon, one that Western institutions and technology companies are struggling to counter.
"Dismissing it as fake news misses the point," said a Western security official who requested anonymity in discussing ongoing investigations into the Russian campaign. "It's about undermining key pillars of democracy and the rule of law."
Variations on the technique existed during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union used propaganda to create alternative realities. In the early years of President Vladimir Putin's rule, Russian officials and state-owned broadcasters promoted false narratives to explain the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security official who died in 2006 after being exposed to a radioactive toxin in London.
But the disinformation campaigns now emanating from Russia are of a different breed, said intelligence officials and analysts. Engineered for the social media age, they fling up swarms of falsehoods, concocted theories and red herrings, intended not so much to persuade people as to bewilder them.
"The mission seems to be to confuse, to muddy the waters," said Peter Pomerantsev, a former Russian-television producer and author of "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible," a memoir that describes the Kremlin's efforts to manipulate the news. The ultimate aim, he said, is to foster an environment in which "people begin giving up on the facts."
Moscow has repeatedly rejected such accusations, while suggesting that Britain is responsible for any confusion over what happened in the Skripal case. "Nine months has passed and so far we have not been presented with any official results of the investigation," Russia's London Embassy said in a statement to The Post. "The Embassy still has no access to our Russian citizens," a reference to Skripal and his Russian daughter, Yulia Skripal, who was also sickened in the attack.
Yet the same tactics that were observed in the wake of the Skripal poisoning have been employed multiple times since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, in each case following roughly the same script. When pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 passengers and crew members, Russian officials and media outlets sought to pin the blame on the Ukrainian government, suggesting at one point that corpses had been trucked to the crash site to make the death toll appear higher.
State-controlled Russian media unleashed a fusillade of falsehoods after the 2015 assassination of reformist politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow and after at least three deadly chemical weapons attacks against civilians by Syria's pro-Russian government.
And apart from these concerted campaigns, there is a daily churn of false or distorted reports that seem designed to exploit the divisions in Western society and politics, especially on issues such as race, violence and sexual rights, and that are pushed by droves of operatives posing as ordinary citizens on social media accounts.
While many of the individual stories are easily debunked, the campaigns have had a discernible impact, as measured by opinion polls and, occasionally, public statements by Western politicians casting doubt on the findings of the intelligence agencies of their own governments. In October 2015, months after U.S. and European investigators concluded that Flight 17 had been brought down by a Russian missile fired by separatists, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told CNN that the culprit was "probably Russia" but suggested that the truth was unknowable.
"To be honest with you, you'll probably never know for sure," he said.
Results such as these have encouraged what private groups say is a massive and ever-increasing investment by Moscow, which has placed numerous news outlets fully or partly on its payroll and operates at least one troll factory in which scores of employees disseminate pro-Kremlin messages using thousands of fake social media accounts.
The cost of this matrix is about $1.3 billion a year, according to Russian budget documents - a modest sum, considering the benefits, said Jakub Kalensky, until recently an official with the East StratCom Task Force, a rapid-response team created by the European Union to counter Russian disinformation. Unlike the covert operations used by Russia to influence foreign elections, Russia's distortion campaigns rarely invite retaliation, he said.
"For Russia, they are a cost-effective method for disrupting and undermining us," Kalensky said. "You can have quite a good result for the money spent."
A botched 'hit'
By any objective measure, the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal was an unalloyed disaster, the kind of intelligence-agency face plant that might have toppled a government if the operation had been carried out by a Western democracy. For the Kremlin, however, the bungled killing was quickly seized on as a public-relations opportunity.
A Russian military intelligence officer who was released to Britain as part of a spy swap in 2010, Skripal was the object of special scorn for Putin, who would publicly deride him as a traitor and a "scumbag." Skripal had been convicted in Russia in 2006 of treason for spying for Britain and was serving a 13-year sentence at the time of the swap.
British investigators say two operatives from the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, were dispatched to Skripal's adopted hometown with a perfume bottle filled with Novichok - a deadly nerve agent developed by Soviet scientists in the 1980s - with the aim of quietly poisoning the 67-year-old pensioner.
Almost nothing went according to plan. The operatives came up short in their quest to kill Skripal. He fell gravely ill along with his daughter, but both recovered after being aggressively treated by doctors for exposure to a suspected nerve agent. Moreover, investigators say, the Russian agents compounded their failure with the inadvertent death of a British woman who became ill after her boyfriend stumbled upon a discarded vial of Novichok and gave it to her, thinking it was perfume.
British investigators quickly identified the toxin as a Russian nerve agent and then publicly identified the suspected hit men, who were caught on camera repeatedly on March 4 as they wandered around Salisbury. Their cover story - the two claimed to be tourists visiting the city's 13th-century cathedral - was riddled with holes. Surveillance camera footage showed the men walking not toward the cathedral but in the opposite direction, toward the residential neighborhood where Skripal lived. The exiled Russian was poisoned the same day.
"They failed to kill their target, and they failed to be covert," said retired Rear Adm. John Gower, who oversaw nuclear, chemical and biological defense policy for Britain's Defense Ministry. "Because of those failures, Russia had to pivot really quickly."
And so when the real facts became problematic, Gower said, Russia quickly manufactured new ones. Dozens of them.
A parade of false stories
The Kremlin's propaganda machine swung into action in the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt. Following a playbook already honed in response to events in Syria and Ukraine, Kremlin-controlled outlets produced a plethora of possible explanations. On March 6, two days after the poisoning, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti was already quoting an anesthesiologist saying that the manner of Skripal's poisoning suggested he was a drug addict and had overdosed.
On March 8 alone, pro-Kremlin news outlets published five phony narratives about the events in Salisbury, offering explanations for Skripal's illness that included an attempted suicide by Skripal and his daughter and a chemical-weapons leak at the nearby military laboratory at Porton Down.
Dmitry Kiselyov - the host of the program "Vesti Nedeli" ("News of the Week") on the Rossiya 1 network and a leading figure in the country's propaganda hierarchy - picked up the baton on March 11. He said that because Skripal was already "completely wrung out and of little interest" as a source, his poisoning was only advantageous to the British to "nourish their Russophobia" and organize a boycott of the summer's World Cup soccer tournament in Russia.
Then it was the Skripals' pets' turn in the spotlight - two guinea pigs and a fluffy Persian cat named Nesh Van Drake. The lack of information about their condition, Russian officials said in remarks that were broadcast on state TV, showed the British were surely covering something up.
"Where are these pets now?" Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, asked at a Security Council meeting on April 5. "What has happened to them? Why has nobody said anything about them? Their condition is very important evidence."
The theories kept coming: Was it someone from the Baltics? Was Skripal poisoned on MI5-sponsored trips to chemical labs in the Czech Republic and Spain? Could it be a British government plot to distract attention from Brexit - or even from a pedophilia scandal in the western English town of Telford?
The Skripal affair, RIA Novosti columnist Ivan Danilov wrote, "will continue as long as the government of Theresa May needs it to resolve its own internal problems."
British officials and experts who studied the events say the false narratives emerged from a Russian information ecosystem in which news outlets and social media networks are increasingly intertwined with the country's intelligence apparatus and official communications organs. While independent media voices flourished briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Putin years have been marked by assassinations of prominent journalists and the silencing or muting of dissent. In recent years, the control over many of the largest news outlets has become nearly absolute, officials and analysts say.
Putin brought Russia's privately owned, freewheeling TV networks to heel in one of his first major moves as president. The Kremlin now controls all of Russia's main national television channels - and half of all Russians say television is their most trusted source of news. The channels deliver a strident, conspiratorial, pro-Kremlin message in hours of lavishly produced talk shows and newsmagazine programs every night.
That domestic propaganda machine is backed up by state-owned news agencies, RIA Novosti and Tass, and a stable of pro-Kremlin newspapers and websites. Russia's state media financing hit a record of 85 billion rubles, or $1.3 billion, for 2018. The government expects to spend $303 million on state broadcaster VGTRK and $293 million on RT, the international broadcaster, this year, according to the latest official figures.
Although the Internet in Russia is mostly uncensored and reporting critical of Putin is widely available in print, online and on the radio, the government's voice is by far the loudest in Russia's media landscape.
Providing further amplification are social media "troll" factories - including one in St. Petersburg known as the Internet Research Agency, described in a Justice Department indictment earlier this year - where hundreds of workers are paid to disseminate false stories on the Internet, under official direction, U.S. officials said. After a crisis, Russia's information network lurches into action, promoting stories and theories favored by the Kremlin, often with remarkable creativity, say officials and analysts.
"Different parts of the system echo each other, so the stories build momentum," said Ben Nimmo, a British-based researcher with the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which analyzes government disinformation campaigns.
Russian politicians and diplomats then chime in, often ridiculing any official investigation and denouncing claims of Russian involvement, Nimmo said. Russian diplomats - and on multiple occasions, Putin himself - publicly scoffed at Britain's claims that Russian operatives were behind the Skripal poisoning. The Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in London echoed several of the false stories from social media, suggesting that Skripal was a British spy and theorizing that British military scientists had synthesized their own batch of Novichok, with help from a Soviet chemist who defected to the West.
"In absence of evidence, we definitely need Poirot in Salisbury," the embassy tweeted, in an allusion to Hercule Poirot, the fictional detective created by novelist Agatha Christie. Some British officials regard such denials as beyond cynical, as the use of Novichok in the poisoning was widely seen as deliberate - a subtle, unspoken claim of responsibility intended to warn other dissidents not to cross Moscow.
Some of the attempts to reshape the Skripal narrative backfired. After British officials on Sept. 5 released surveillance photographs of a pair of Russians suspected of carrying out the plot, RT aired an interview in which the two men claimed that they had been mere tourists in Britain. Their story began to unravel days later when a report by the investigative news site Bellingcat assembled compelling evidence that both men were GRU officers.
The men made no effort in the RT interview to explain the traces of Novichok police discovered in their hotel room and instead made an awkward attempt to explain why they made two quick trips to Salisbury over a wintry March weekend. One of them described a desire to see the Salisbury cathedral's "123-meter spire" and ancient clock, two features that appear on the cathedral's Wikipedia entry.
Pro-Kremlin media also started pushing the story line that the two men might be gay - and, by implication, could not possibly be part of Russia's military intelligence service. The "Vesti" news show ran a segment depicting Salisbury as imbued with a spirit of "modern European tolerance" and full of gay bars. In fact, a local newspaper said the town's sole gay bar had closed three months before the Skripal poisoning.
Yet, even as the alibi attempt turned into farce, Russia's Foreign Ministry continued to claim that Britain had concocted evidence to frame the men for a crime they could not possibly have committed. "There is no proof," spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote in a Facebook posting on Sept. 26, asserting that Britain was seeking to divert the public's attention from the real story of "what happened in Salisbury."
As the false stories began to be picked apart, Russia responded with "a mixture of defiance and desperation," Nimmo said. "You can see the Russian propaganda machine struggling over what to do."
And yet by then, it no longer mattered. By multiple measures, Moscow had mostly succeeded in achieving the outcome it wanted most - doubt.
A bewildered public
Last month, an independent pollster set out to measure how ordinary Russians viewed the events in Salisbury. The result: Despite lab reports, surveillance photographs and a detailed criminal complaint by British investigators, Russians overwhelmingly rejected the notion that their government was involved in the attack.
Nearly three in 10 of the Russians surveyed said they believed Britain was behind the poisoning, while 56 percent agreed with the comment "It could have been anyone," according to the Levada Center poll, conducted during the third week of October. Only 3 percent were willing to attribute the assassination attempt to Russia's intelligence agencies.
Indeed, the Kremlin managed to turn the botched assassination and the ensuing Western uproar to Putin's political advantage. The Russian presidential election was on March 18, and Putin was looking for high voter turnout to legitimize another six-year term. The Skripal affair allowed the Kremlin to turn the public's attention away from domestic problems and back to the confrontation between Russia and the West - a winning issue for Putin.
By quickly accusing Russia of being behind the poisoning, Britain's May gave Putin a "pre-election present," Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser turned prominent Putin critic, said at the time. "She angered the voters a little bit and gave him another three to five percentage points of turnout."
Levada sociologist Denis Volkov said the result showed the compelling nature of the us-vs.-them narrative constructed by the Kremlin and state media over the past two decades. In that reality, the West is bent on stopping Russia from returning to great-power status after it brought the country to its knees in the 1990s. The story line builds on many Russians' memories of chaos, violence and poverty in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In focus groups, Volkov said, people sometimes acknowledged the likelihood of Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning after initially rejecting it. After all, the respondents said, Russia was in a new Cold War with the West, and since the United States and its allies were lying, cheating and killing, Russia had to as well.
"They'll say, 'Sure, yeah, we might've done it,' " Volkov said. " 'But what's the problem? Everyone's doing it. There's a war going on, even if it's a cold war, between Russia and the West. So it's OK to do it. The main thing is to deny everything.' "
Russia's propaganda organs targeting foreign audiences - the television network RT and the web of radio stations and websites called Sputnik - also promote an anti-American narrative. While Russia's domestic messaging builds on Russians' bitterness stemming from the instability after the Soviet collapse, Moscow's foreign propaganda message capitalizes on an aversion to what is seen as U.S. hegemony and hypocrisy in many parts of the world.
It's less clear how effective RT and Sputnik are in pushing Russia's message abroad. In Britain, the Kremlin's version of the events in Salisbury has been widely debunked by independent news media. But in central and eastern Europe, where Russian channels in multiple languages are part of the standard cable-TV lineup, the contradictory claims have left viewers confused and bewildered - precisely what the designers of the propaganda campaign intended, said Kalensky, the former E.U. investigator.
"The strategy is to spread as many versions of events as possible and don't worry that they sometimes contradict themselves," Kalensky said. "It's not the purpose to persuade someone with one version of events. The goal for Russia is achieve a state in which the average media consumer says, 'There are too many versions of events, and I'll never know the truth.' "
Even in the West, government agencies fear that Russia's efforts are contributing to a growing distrust in traditional sources of information and blurring the line between fact and fiction. While RT's viewership is relatively small in the West, its stories are frequently recycled on right-wing websites and media outlets.
Just as often, the stream flows in the opposite direction. False stories that first appear on obscure conservative news sites become fodder for Russian TV talk shows. Since the start of the Trump era, Russian channels regularly echo the U.S. president's allegations about an American "deep state" and his depictions of the mainstream media as "fake news."
The resulting muddle was highlighted by Putin himself, who, while standing next to President Trump during their July summit in Helsinki, seemed to distill the Kremlin's approach to the news while responding to a question about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"As for who to believe, who you can't believe, can you believe at all?" Putin mused, before answering his own questions: "You can't believe anyone."
- - - Troianovski reported from Moscow. The Washington Post's Natalia Abbakumova and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.