‘Precocious’ Russian disinformation campaign mimics Western news sites to sow dissent – POLITICO

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In Germany, the news magazine Der Spiegel warned of natural gas shortages. In the UK, the Guardian, another outlet, cast doubt on Russian war crimes in Ukraine. In Italy, Ansa, a leading news agency, criticized Kyiv’s badly needed grain storage.

These reports were all widely promoted on Facebook and Twitter. They were all fake – and part of a massive Russian influence operation to promote the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine that targeted people across the European Union and the UK, according to a published report Tuesday by Meta.

The extensive covert campaign relied on fake media sites designed to mimic those of legitimate European brands such as Der Spiegel, The Guardian and Ansa, among others.

In total, Meta researchers and other disinformation investigators uncovered more than 60 fraudulent media websites – almost all of which were heavily promoted on social media, including through Facebook ads totaling, collectively, over of $100,000 – which peddled Russian propaganda about its war in Ukraine and attempted to sow doubt across the continent about the continued support of national governments for Kyiv.

« It’s an attempt to smash and grab, » Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global head of threat intelligence, told POLITICO. « They created these very fancy fake domains. And then they tried to push them out to as many different platforms as possible. »

The social media giant could not attribute the months-long campaign to a specific group in Russia. But dozens of pieces of evidence, including some of these websites registered in the country, heavy use of the Cyrillic alphabet and language errors mostly associated with translated Russian, have highlighted how the activity of secret influence was born in Russia. It began shortly after Moscow invaded its western neighbour.

The campaign, which took place between April and September, represents the largest and most complex undercover effort to promote Russia’s interests on social media since the war in Ukraine began. Part of the covert operation has already been reported by T-Online, a German media outlet, whose brand has also been copied by these Russian actors to push Kremlin-backed propaganda. Other outlets whose websites have been copied to promote Moscow’s lies include Welt in Germany, 20 Minutes in France and the Daily Mail in the UK.

It relied on several networks on fake social media users, many of whom used profile pictures generated through artificial intelligence tools. It targeted people in Germany, France, Italy, Latvia, UK and Ukraine respectively.

« It’s grotesque, » said Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of EU Disinfo Lab, a nonprofit that specializes in tracking online influencer campaigns and discovered this Russia-affiliated campaign separately from the work being done. by Meta. His team was able to link many of these fraudulent fake news websites to the same larger network and found repeated links that directly linked influencer campaigns in different languages ​​to Russian actors.

« We found many Russian traces, » he added. « We also discovered that the infrastructure (to help support the covert campaign) was based in Europe to conduct this operation. »

Good job, little impact

Despite the sophistication of the months-long campaign, researchers found that the network, comprising nearly 1,000 fake Facebook profiles, failed to break through to legitimate European social media users.

Fraudulent accounts bought Facebook ads to promote Russian propaganda to online audiences | Image via iStock

As part of the activity, for example, these fraudulent accounts – many of which used the same naming structure as part of profile usernames – bought Facebook ads to promote Russian propaganda to an audience in line. They often linked to pro-Kremlin articles in spoofed media websites and repeatedly posted on others’ Facebook feeds in an effort to generate engagement from the wider online world. None of these promotions caught the attention of anyone outside of the underground network.

Initially, the activity was evenly distributed among all European countries. But as the network grew, the covert campaign redirected much of its efforts to Germany, based on Meta’s analysis. Researchers from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks online disinformation and independently reviewed the meta analysis before publication, found posts criticizing Berlin’s move away from Russian natural gas and warning the Germans of a likely energy crisis due to their government’s new energy policies.

The posts, however, received little to no interaction with legitimate social media users. This is partly because Russian-affiliated accounts often had language discrepancies that made them appear to be non-native speakers of German. Others also repeatedly posted in Russian, including links to Russian cooking recipes, while some made basic mistakes like using a male profile picture for an account associated with a female. .

« This was a clear case of inauthentic activity. It ticked all the boxes, » said Nika Aleksejeva, senior Baltic researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who originally discovered the network. secrecy in August.

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