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Russian disinformation campaign with fake websites

T-Online.com and Meta have uncovered a broad-based Russian disinformation campaign that worked centrally with fake newspaper websites and a network of fake accounts on social media such as Facebook and Instagram.

Sanctions abandonment as a goal?

As part of the disinformation campaign, websites were set up in the design of well-known newspapers. For example, websites purporting to display content from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Der Spiegel, Die Welt, Bildzeitung or the Guardian can be found. The designs of the real websites have been deceptively imitated. The pretend newspaper articles mainly deal with the increased energy prices and blame them on the sanctions against Russia. They worked with fictitious catastrophe reports as well as with seemingly purely informative articles about the price increase. On a fake Spiegel page, for example, there is an article about a gas explosion in a school in Bremen, which is said to have been triggered by incorrect settings when saving gas, but which never actually took place. The tenor of the articles is clear: if the sanctions against Russia were lifted, prices in Germany would fall, making life more pleasant and safer. Consequently, Russia aims to influence public opinion in Germany as well as in the other target areas of the campaign: to influence it in a pro-Russian way and thus destabilize the political orientation of the West.

Echo chamber in social media

However, designing the fake newspaper pages and writing the articles is not enough for this. Social media, through which the articles were disseminated, also took a central role. Meta reports, for example, of having deleted 1,633 Facebook profiles, 703 Facebook pages and a Facebook group, and 29 Instagram profiles that were involved in spreading the disinformation. What could be observed here, according to Meta, was a distribution of roles among the individual profiles and pages: Some primarily posted articles, while others primarily provided comments, likes and shares of these very articles and, in addition, disseminated them on third-party sites. The reciprocal commenting, sharing and liking resulted in a reciprocal amplification of the reach as well as an intertwining of the respective followers. All in all, we can speak of an attempt to build an echo chamber or filter bubble: Anyone who came across one of the profiles could easily find access to an entire network of such profiles. The well-known filter bubble mechanism of social networks, which has been criticized time and again in the past, was thus cleverly exploited here. The only bizarre thing in this context is that an extraordinarily large number of the fake accounts named Netflix as their employer – it is almost impossible to determine why this is the case.

The campaign shows once again that wars today are not fought exclusively in the analog world, but increasingly have digital components. Russia had, for instance, blocked numerous websites, including the real site of the newspaper Die Welt, and imposed numerous fines on major Western Internet companies for refusing to block posts critical of the regime.

Scrutiny of (alleged) newspaper posts

Given the targeted disinformation from the Russian side and the high-quality replication of newspaper websites, the question arises of how to distinguish genuine from fake media sites. What, for example, is a good criterion for distinguishing the site of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from a Russian clone masquerading as the same? As already mentioned, it was possible to observe an almost perfect replica of the design, including internal linking structures, which led to the real FAZ website. What is striking, however, is the linguistic style of the fake articles: They are often written in particularly easy language, with short sentences and a less elaborate choice of words – and thus differ from the genuine FAZ articles. In addition, there is a high density of errors. For example, one fake article states that “[v]irtual things cost considerably more today than they used to.” There are also hair-raising explanations that can easily be identified as false: the fact that the price of oil is rising faster than that of luxury goods such as cars is explained, for example, by the fact that it is easier to “attach a new price tag to oil than to reprint a car catalog” – which is far removed from the actual mechanisms of inflation and its different manifestations in different groups of goods.

But even without checking the content of the articles, it is comparatively easy to find out whether they are fake. For example, social media offer verification processes to prove that Facebook pages are actually those of the aforementioned media. If there is no verification for an alleged FAZ or Spiegel page on Facebook, caution is advised. In addition, the respective source must be checked: Was the article shared by a private profile in a comment column or posted directly by the respective editorial team on Facebook? What content and information can be found on the private profile?

Probably the most central criterion, however, is the domain of the website. Although the chosen domains bear the names of the newspapers and are based on the real domains, they are necessarily different from them, since a domain is assigned only once in each case. For example, while the real FAZ website can be found under faz.de, the fake article appeared under the domain faz.ltd. It is easy to check which domain belongs to which newspaper: A Google search and a look at the relevant Wikipedia entry will help.

Simon Lüthje

I am co-founder of this blog and am very interested in everything that has to do with technology, but I also like to play games. I was born in Hamburg, but now I live in Bad Segeberg.

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T-Online.com and Meta have uncovered a broad-based Russian disinformation campaign that worked centrally with fake newspaper websites and a network of fake accounts on social media such as Facebook and Instagram. Sanctions abandonment as a goal? As part of the disinformation campaign, websites were set up in the design of well-known newspapers. For example, websites … (Weiterlesen...)

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