As testimony was underway during the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, far-right defenders of the president rapidly spread false and unsubstantiated information in an attempt to bolster a Republican-backed conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden and Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that previously had Biden on its board of directors.
On November 20, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified before the House Intelligence Committee and provided further support for the central premise of the impeachment inquiry. Sondland confirmed that he believed Trump directed an effort to hold up security assistance to Ukraine unless the country announced an investigation into his political adversaries. Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and others close to the president have repeatedly pushed the evidence-free claim that, as vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor because that prosecutor was investigating Burisma, where his son worked at the time. (In fact, the prosecutor in question was corrupt, and no Burisma investigation was being carried out at the time when Biden was tasked with advancing the broadly held Western foreign policy goal of pressuring Ukraine to fire the prosecutor.)
While the hearing was underway, conspiracy theory website ZeroHedge published an article claiming that Burisma founder Nikolai Zlochevsky had been indicted by Ukraine’s prosecutor general, and that evidence indicated that Hunter Biden and other Burisma board members had received money embezzled by Burisma from Ukrainian citizens. NBC News reported that the claims in the ZeroHedge article were “incorrect,” as Burisma founder Mykola Zlochevsky has not been indicted, but that “didn’t stop allies of President Donald Trump from widely disseminating the false account of an indictment, seizing on some truthful elements while wildly extrapolating others.” According to a report from Reuters, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, did announce on November 20 an escalation into his investigation of Zlochevsky to include suspicion of embezzlement, but he “did not provide evidence or details” or mention Biden. Reuters added that the investigation is “is effectively on hold” because “the Ukrainian authorities cannot determine Zlochevsky’s whereabouts.”
According to NBC News, the claim that Burisma’s founder had been indicted was shared by tens of thousands of users on Twitter during the first hour after it was published. Social media analysis tool CrowdTangle showed that by the morning of November 21, the ZeroHedge story had been shared on Facebook pages with a total of nearly 5.5 million followers. The story also began to trend on Reddit’s toxic “r/The_Donald” subreddit. In particular, the story was initially popularized on Twitter by an account purporting to be a news organization, @BreakingNLive, that was suspended from the platform later in the day. The false story reached Trump’s inner circle on Twitter, with Donald Trump Jr. liking a tweet promoting the ZeroHedge article sent by Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. (Posobiec appears to have subsequently deleted the tweet.) On YouTube, the indictment claim is being promoted by Red Pill News, a channel verified by YouTube that has 176,000 subscribers, and a channel belonging to far-right congressional candidate Joey Saladino, which has 252,000 subscribers.
Beyond Posobiec, the ZeroHedge claims were pushed on social media by other prominent far-right conspiracy theorists including Jerome Corsi, Bill Mitchell, and cartoonist Ben Garrison. Proponents of the far-right pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory were also behind the social media push. As NBC News reported, “One minute before the ZeroHedge article was published, the anonymous account that inspired the QAnon conspiracy theory — generally known as 'Q' — linked to the same” article that formed the basis of the claims promoted at ZeroHedge. Major QAnon accounts, including @Jordan_Sather_ and @EyesOnQ subsequently promoted the ZeroHedge article. NBC’s Ben Collins reported that “Q” later made a post complaining about the suspension of @BreakingNLive.
Beyond social media, the claims first popularized by ZeroHedge were also featured on disreputable right-wing conspiracy theory websites Infowars and The Gateway Pundit as well as smaller such platforms including The Federalist Papers, WayneDupree.com, [your]News, The Daily Coin, and MAGA Daily Report. (Hannity and Fox “straight news” program Fox News @ Night later covered the Reuters report as well, while featuring pictures and a discussion of Hunter Biden.)
The source of ZeroHedge’s story appears to be an article from Interfax-Ukraine that repeated unsubstantiated claims about illegal payments from Burisma to Biden made by Ukrainian Members of Parliament Andriy Derkach and Oleksandr Dubinsky at a press conference they held at the news agency, where they did not offer evidence to back their claims. Interfax-Ukraine’s parent company is a Russian business, Interfax, that was recently praised by Vladmir Putin as making “a major contribution to strengthening the authority and prestige of journalism.” Derkach’s claim about the payments isn’t new. As Time reported, in recent months Derkach has repeatedly made public statements alleging improper payments from Burisma to Biden. Those statements failed to catch on in the way the statements made at the press conference on Wednesday did. Other Ukrainian lawmakers have accused Derkach -- who does not belong to a political party and, according to Time, “studied in the early 1990s at Russia’s top intelligence academy” -- of advancing the interests of Russia, which is currently waging a war against Ukraine. According to Kyiv Post, Derkach has made separate accusations about Biden receiving improper payments in an offshore account while providing “no evidence to support these accusations.” According to Ukraine experts interviewed by NBC News, Derkach and Dubinsky are “not credible” and likely held the press conference to boost Trump.