Once a Sheriff’s Deputy in Florida, Now a Source of Disinformation From Russia

A dozen years ago, John Mark Dougan, a former deputy sheriff in Palm Beach County, Florida, sent voters an email posing as a county commissioner, urging them to oppose the reelection of the county’s sheriff.

He later masqueraded online as a Russian tech worker with a pseudonym, BadVolf, to leak confidential information in violation of state law, fooling officials in Florida who thought they were dealing with a foreigner.

He also posed as a fictional New York City heir he called Jessica, tricking an adviser to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office into divulging improper conduct by the department.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

“And boy, did he ever spill ALL of the beans,” Dougan said in a written response to questions for this article, in which he confirmed his role in these episodes.

Those subterfuges in the United States, it turned out, were only a prelude to a more prominent and potentially more ominous campaign of deception he has been conducting from Russia.

Dougan, 51, who received political asylum in Moscow, is now a key player in Russia’s disinformation operations against the West. Back in 2016, when the Kremlin interfered in the American presidential election, an army of computer trolls toiled for hours in an office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, to try to fool Americans online.

Today Dougan may be accomplishing much the same task largely by himself, according to U.S. and European government officials and researchers from companies and organizations that have tracked his activities since August. The groups include NewsGuard, a company that reviews the reliability of news and information online; Recorded Future, a threat intelligence company; and Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub.

Working from an apartment crowded with servers and other computer equipment, Dougan has built an ever-growing network of more than 160 fake websites that mimic news outlets in the United States, Britain and France.

With the help of commercially available artificial intelligence tools, including OpenAI’s ChatGPT and DALL-E 3, he has filled the sites with tens of thousands of articles, many based on actual news events. Interspersed among them are also bespoke fabrications that officials in the United States and European Union have attributed to Russian intelligence agencies or the administration of President Vladimir Putin.

Between September and May, Dougan’s outlets have been cited or referred to in news articles or social media posts nearly 8,000 times, and seen by more than 37 million people in 16 languages, according to a report to be released Wednesday by NewsGuard.

The fakes have recently included a baseless article on a fake San Francisco Chronicle website that said Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had smuggled 300 kilograms of cocaine from Argentina. Another false narrative appeared last month in the sham Chronicle and on another site, called The Boston Times, claiming that the CIA was working with Ukrainians to undermine Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Dougan, in a series of text exchanges and one telephone interview with The New York Times, denied operating the sites. A digital trail of clues, including web domains and IP addresses, suggests otherwise, the officials and researchers say.

A friend in Florida who has known Dougan for 20 years, Jose Lambiet, also said in a telephone interview that Dougan told him in January that he had created the sites.

Steven Brill, a founder of NewsGuard, which has spent months tracking Dougan’s work, said he represented “a massive incursion into the American news ecosystem.”

“It’s not just some guy sitting in his basement in New Jersey tapping out a phony website,” he added.

Dougan’s emergence as a weapon of the Kremlin’s propaganda war follows a troubled life in the United States that included home foreclosures and bankruptcy. As a law enforcement officer in Florida and Maine, he faced accusations of excessive use of force and sexual harassment that resulted in costly lawsuits against the departments he worked for.

He faces an arrest warrant in Florida — its records sealed by court order — on 21 felony charges of extortion and wiretapping that resulted from a long-running feud with the sheriff of Palm Beach County.

Dougan’s activities from Moscow, where he fled in 2016 one step ahead of those charges, continue to draw scrutiny from authorities in the United States. Last year, he impersonated an FBI agent in a telephone call to Brill, according to an account by Brill to be published next week in a new book, “The Death of Truth.”

Dougan, who acknowledged making the call in a text message this week, had been angered by a NewsGuard report in February 2023 that criticized YouTube for allowing videos parroting Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine, including some by Dougan.

In a rambling, profanity-laced video in response on YouTube last year, Dougan posted excepts of the call with Brill and showed a Google Earth satellite photograph of his home in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City — “just down the road from the Clinton crime family,” as Dougan put it, referring to the home of former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The call prompted an FBI investigation that, according to Brill, traced the call to Dougan’s telephone in Russia. (A spokesperson for the bureau did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation or Dougan’s previous activities.)

A History in Law Enforcement

Dougan began to hone the skills that he is putting to use today during a turbulent childhood in the United States. In the written responses to questions for this article, he said he had struggled at home and in school, bullied because of Tourette syndrome, but found a passion in computers. When he was 8, he said, the man who would become his stepfather began teaching him to write computer code.

“By the time I was 16,” he wrote in one response, “I knew a dozen different programming languages.”

After a four-year stint in the Marine Corps, which Dougan claims he offered to join in lieu of a jail sentence for fleeing a police stop for speeding on a motorcycle, he became a police officer first in a small force in Mangonia Park, Florida, and then the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office from 2005 to 2009.

According to news reports and his own accounts over the years, Dougan repeatedly clashed with superiors and colleagues, facing numerous internal investigations that he said were retaliatory because he objected to police misconduct, including instances of racial bias.

In 2009, he moved briefly to Windham, Maine, to work in another small-town police department. There he faced a complaint of sexual harassment that resulted in his dismissal before he completed his probationary period.

Dougan started a website called WindhamTalk to defend himself. The website foreshadowed others he would create, including one devoted to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, PBSOTalk.

After moving back to Florida, he used PBSOTalk to torment in particular the department’s elected sheriff, Ric L. Bradshaw, whom he accused of corruption. He posted the unlawful recordings of “Jessica” chatting with a former detective commander, Mark Lewis, who, Dougan claimed, was investigating the sheriff’s critics, including himself. As Dougan acknowledged in a video interview last year, it is illegal in Florida to record a telephone conversation without permission.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, Therese C. Barbera, said Dougan was “a wanted felon for cyberstalking using unsubstantiated and fabricated claims that have NO factual basis.”

In February 2016, PBSOTalk posted confidential information about thousands of police officers, federal agents and judges. The next month, FBI agents and local police officers searched Dougan’s home, seizing all of his electronic equipment.

Fearing arrest, he said, he made his way to Canada and caught a flight to Moscow. He was indicted on the 21 Florida felony charges the next year.

Peddling Russia Propaganda

In Russia, Dougan refashioned himself as a kind of journalist, documenting his travels around the country, including Lake Baikal in Siberia and Crimea, the peninsula in Ukraine that Russian annexed in 2014 in violation of international law.

He posted photographs and videos from those trips on YouTube, which suspended his channel after NewsGuard’s report last year. He also appeared regularly on state media, including with two former intelligence operatives, Maria Butina, who penetrated Republican political circles, and Anna Chapman, one of 10 spies who inspired the television series “The Americans.”

In 2021, as Putin began mobilizing the military forces that would invade Ukraine, Dougan posted a video that the Kremlin would cite as one justification for its attack. In it, he claimed that the United States operated biological weapons factories in Ukraine, an accusation that Russia and its allies have pushed without ever providing evidence.

Once the war started, Dougan recounted in his written responses to questions, he traveled to Ukraine 14 times to report from the Russian side of the front lines. He appeared in Russian government hearings purporting to expose Ukraine’s transgressions, indicating some level of cooperation with government authorities.

He has faced criticism for the reports, including in a profile in The Daily Beast, that he posted on YouTube and other platforms. Dougan has portrayed the war much as Russia’s propaganda has: as a righteous battle against neo-Nazis backed by a decadent West, led by the United States and NATO.

“The West has consistently lied about every aspect of this conflict,” he wrote. “Why does only one side get to tell their story?”

Fake News Sites in the U.S.

In April 2021, Dougan revived a website called DC Weekly, which had been created four years earlier and published fake articles about the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. According to a report in December by Clemson’s Media Forensics Hub, the domain and IP address were shared by PBSOTalk and Dougan’s personal website, as well as two marketing books he wrote in exile and a security firm he operated, Falcon Eye Tech, which offered “offshore security monitoring services.”

After Russia’s assault on Ukraine began in 2022, the site carried articles about the war.

Then, last August, the site began to publish articles based on elaborate fabrications that the Western government officials and disinformation researchers said came from Russia’s propaganda units. They often appeared first in videos or audio recordings on obscure X accounts or YouTube channels, then spread to sites like DC Weekly and then to Russian state media as if they were authentic accusations, a process researchers call “narrative laundering.”

The baseless narratives included claims that relatives or cronies of Ukraine’s leader secretly bought luxury properties, yachts or jewelry, and that Prince Andrew, the brother of King Charles III of Britain, had abducted and abused children during a secret visit to Ukraine.

Dozens of new sites have appeared in recent months. They included ones made to look like local news outlets: The Chicago Chronicle, The Miami Chronicle, The Boston Times, The Flagstaff Post and The Houston Post. Some hijacked names of actual news organizations, like The San Francisco Chronicle, or approximated them, in the case of one called The New York News Daily.

When the Times reported on the new sites in March, DC Weekly published a lengthy response in a stilted style that indicated the use of AI. It was written under the name Jessica Devlin, one of the fictitious journalists on the site. “I’m not a shadowy foreign actor,” the article said.

At the end, the article invited media inquiries at an email address with the domain Falcon Eye Tech.

Two days later, Dougan answered.

103 New Sites in Two Days

Dougan, who became a Russian citizen last year and voted in the country’s presidential election in March, said in his messages to the Times that he made a living by selling security devices he designed for a manufacturer in China. He denied being paid by any Russian authorities, claiming he funds his activities himself.

His friend Lambiet, a private investigator and former journalist, said he considered Dougan a good man but cautioned that Dougan had a propensity to make things up. “He’s like a Russian disinformation campaign: It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not,” he said.

As evidence of Dougan’s role in the news sites has emerged, he has shifted tactics. Recorded Future released a report this month that detailed his ties to agencies linked to the Russian disinformation. The report documented the extensive use of AI, which one of the company’s researchers, Clément Briens, estimated made Dougan’s work far cheaper than hiring a troll army.

At the time, Recorded Future identified 57 domains that Dougan had created. In a two-day span after the report was published, 103 new sites appeared, all on a server in California.

“He’s trying to obfuscate the Russian links,” Briens said.

Dougan at times treats his activities as a game of cat and mouse. He spent months engaging with a researcher at NewsGuard, McKenzie Sadeghi, revealing details of his life in Moscow while mocking her boss, Brill.

“He seemed to be toying with me, both to elicit my responses and, it seemed, to show off his talent for global online mischief, without actually admitting anything,” she wrote in the report to be published Wednesday.

While Dougan’s sites have focused on Russian narratives about the war in Ukraine, the researchers and government officials say he has laid the foundation for interference in the unusually large confluence of elections taking place around the world this year.

This suggests a “risk of an expanded operation scope in the near future, potentially targeting diverse audiences and democratic systems in Europe and other Western nations for various strategic objectives,” the diplomatic service of the EU wrote in a report last month when the network included only 23 websites.

In recent weeks, the sites have included themes that seem intended to stoke the partisan fires in the United States before November’s presidential election.

Last month, articles appeared on two of Dougan’s newer fake sites, The Houston Post and The Flagstaff Post, detailing a baseless claim that the FBI had planted an eavesdropping device in Trump’s office at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

Some of the new sites have names, like Right Review and Red State Report, that suggest a conservative political bent. In April, a site that researchers also linked to Dougan offered “major cryptocurrency rewards” for leaks of information about U.S. officials, singling out two prosecutors and a judge involved in the criminal cases against Trump.

“If the site was mine,” he wrote in response to a question about it, “I would want people to give documents on any dirty politician, Republican, Democrat or other.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company