A host of major European news websites have been targeted by a pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation campaign, according to a new report.
Websites have been affected by what researchers call a “highly influential operation” via reader comment sections on the news.
Some 32 media outlets in 16 countries have been targeted, the report says, including publications such as the UK’s Daily Mail and The Times, Germany’s Der Spiegel and Die Welt, France’s Le Figaro and Italy’s La Stampa.
The campaign is systematically manipulating Western media, Cardiff University researchers say, by publishing provocative pro-Russian or anti-Western comments in Russia-related articles.
The team from the Cardiff University Crime and Security Research Institute identified 242 such stories.
The comments were later used by the Russian-language media as the basis for stories about political events and were also reported by other fringe media with a history of spreading disinformation and propaganda.
Some of the comments were found to have an unusually high number of “upvotes” or “likes” on platforms where these features are available, suggesting an attempt to present these comments as representative of public opinion.
Western security services have linked some of them to Russian intelligence agencies.
The director of the Institute for Security and Crime Research, Professor Martin Innes, who heads the Open Source Communications Analytics Research (OSCAR) program, said the uncovered campaign was “especially significant” due to its international scale and the sophisticated manipulation of the media.
“By hijacking the comment sections of Western media brands, he has been able to present his propaganda as indicative of widespread opinion,” he said.
“The Western media we investigated are especially vulnerable to this type of manipulation, without security measures to prevent, deter or detect this type of activity. Trolls have been able to easily switch between people and identities, which is something that technology really allows. “
The researchers used data science pattern recognition and detection techniques to highlight unusual behaviors associated with some accounts that post comments.
They discovered through forensic behavior analysis that accounts posting pro-Russian comments repeatedly changed their people and locations.
“As major social media platforms have become more alert to the risks of foreign state influence operations, disinformation agents and propagandists have been looking for new vulnerabilities in the media ecosystem to exploit them,” Professor Innes said.
“By adopting a ‘full spectrum’ media strategy that combines information from social media and mainstream media, this sophisticated campaign has had the potential to shape the thoughts, emotions and behavior of several diverse international audiences in relationship with high-profile media stories.
“Most importantly, the particular tactics and techniques used to ‘hack’ the comment function in the media ecosystem make it almost impossible to attribute responsibility for pro-Kremlin trolling behavior on the basis of publicly available open source data. . Therefore, it is vital that media companies that run participatory websites are more transparent about how they are tackling misinformation and more proactive in preventing it. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism