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‘Grotesque’ Russian disinfo campaign mimics Western news websites to sow dissent – POLITICO

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In Germany, the news magazine Der Spiegel warned of a shortage of natural gas. In the UK, the Guardian, another media outlet, has raised suspicions about Russian war crimes in Ukraine. In Italy, the leading news agency ANSA has criticized Kyiv’s stockpiling of much-needed grain.

All these news stories were widely promoted on Facebook and Twitter. They were all fake — and formed part of a large-scale Russian influence operation to promote the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine that targeted people across the European Union and the United Kingdom, according to a report published Tuesday by Meta.

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

In all, Meta researchers and other disinformation investigators discovered more than 60 fraudulent media sites — nearly all of which were heavily promoted on social media, including via Facebook ads collectively totaling over $100,000 — that promoted Russian propaganda about its war. In Ukraine he tried to sow doubts across the continent about the continued support of the local governments of Kiev.

“It’s an attempt to crush and take over,” Ben Nimo, Meta’s global threat intelligence chief, told Politico. “They created these very complex rogue domains. And then they tried to attack them across as many different platforms as possible.”

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The social media giant could not attribute the months-long campaign to a specific group within Russia. But dozens of evidence, including some of these sites that are registered within the state, extensive use of the Cyrillic alphabet and linguistic errors mainly associated with translated Russian, have shed light on how clandestine influence activity originated in Russia. It began shortly after Moscow invaded its western neighbor.

The campaign, which ran between April and September, represents the largest and most complex covert effort to promote Russia’s interests on social media since the start of the war in Ukraine. Part of the covert operation was previously reported by T-Online, a German news outlet, whose brand was likewise copied by these Russian representatives to push Kremlin-backed propaganda. Other media organizations whose websites have been copied to promote Moscow’s lies include Germany’s Welt, France’s 20 Minutes, and Britain’s Daily Mail.

It relied on multiple networks on fake social media users, many of whom used profile pictures created via artificial intelligence tools. It targeted people in Germany, France, Italy, Latvia, the United Kingdom and Ukraine, respectively.

“It’s strange,” said Alexander Alaphilippi, executive director of EU Disinfo Lab, a nonprofit that tracks online influence campaigns, finding out about this Russia-affiliated campaign separately from the work that Meta has done. His team was able to connect several of these fake fake news sites to the same broader network, and found frequent links directly linking influence campaigns in different languages ​​to Russian actors.

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“We found large-scale Russian traces,” he added. “We also found that the infrastructure (to help support the covert campaign) was in Europe to run this operation.”

Good skill, little effect

Despite the complexity of the months-long campaign, researchers discovered that the network, including nearly 1,000 fake Facebook profiles, failed to penetrate legitimate European social media users.

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

As part of the activity, for example, these fraudulent accounts – many of which used the same naming structure as part of their profile usernames – purchased Facebook ads to promote Russian propaganda to an online audience. They are often linked to pro-Kremlin articles on scam media sites and repeatedly post on each other’s Facebook feeds in an effort to gain engagement from the wider internet world. None of this promotion got the attention of anyone outside the secret network.

Initially, the activity was divided equally between all European countries. But as the network expanded, the covert expedition redirected many of its efforts toward Germany, based on a meta-analysis. Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory, which tracks misinformation online and independently reviews meta-analysis before publication, found leaflets criticizing Berlin’s move away from Russian natural gas and warning Germans of a potential energy crisis due to their government’s new energy policies.

However, the posts received little or no interaction with legitimate social media users. This is partly because accounts belonging to Russian often had language differences that marked them as non-German speakers. Others also posted repeatedly in Russian, including links to Russian recipes, while some made basic mistakes like using a male profile picture for an account linked to a woman.

“This was a clear case of inauthentic activity. It ticked all the boxes,” said Nika Alekseeva, senior Baltic researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory, who first discovered this secret network in August.

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