Russian disinformation campaign with fake websites

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T-Online.com and Meta uncovered a massive Russian disinformation campaign that operated centrally with fake newspaper websites and a network of fake social media accounts such as Facebook and Instagram.

The abandonment of sanctions as an objective?

As part of the disinformation campaign, websites were created in the design of well-known newspapers. For example, websites claiming 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 bogus newspaper articles mainly deal with rising energy prices and blame them on sanctions against Russia. They worked with fictitious disaster reports as well as seemingly purely informative articles about price increases. On a fake Spiegel page, for example, there is an article about a gas explosion in a school in Bremen, which was allegedly triggered by incorrect settings when saving gas, but which never happened. 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. Therefore, 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 thereby 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 played a central role. Meta reports, for example, removed 1,633 Facebook profiles, 703 Facebook pages and one Facebook group, and 29 Instagram profiles implicated in spreading misinformation. What could be observed here, according to Meta, was a distribution of roles between profiles and individual pages: some mainly published articles, while others mainly provided comments, likes and shares of these same articles and, in addition, disseminated them on third-party sites. party venues. Reciprocal comments, shares and likes resulted in reciprocal reach amplification as well as intertwining of respective followers. All in all, we can speak of an attempt to build an echo chamber or a filter bubble: anyone encountering one of the profiles could easily find access to a whole network of such profiles. The well-known mechanism of social network filter bubbles, which has been criticized many times in the past, has therefore been skilfully exploited here. The only bizarre thing in this context is that an extraordinarily high number of fake accounts have named Netflix as their employer – it’s almost impossible to determine why this is the case.

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

Review of newspaper articles (alleged)

Given the targeted disinformation from the Russian side and the high-quality replication of newspaper websites, the question arises as to how to distinguish genuine media sites from fake ones. What is, for example, a good criterion to distinguish the site of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from a Russian clone pretending to be the same? As already mentioned, it was possible to observe an almost perfect replica of the design, including the 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 a particularly easy language, with short sentences and a less elaborate choice of words – and therefore differ from the real FAZ articles. Moreover, there is a high density of errors. For example, a bogus article states that “[v]Virtual things are much more expensive today than before. There are also horrifying 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 catalog of cars” – which is far removed from the real mechanisms of inflation and its different manifestations in different groups of goods.

But even without checking the content of the articles, it is relatively easy to know if they are fake. For example, social media offers verification processes to prove that Facebook pages are indeed 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 should be checked: was the article shared by a private profile in a comment column or published directly by the respective editorial team on Facebook? What content and information can be found on the private profile?

However, the most central criteria is probably the domain of the website. Although the domains chosen bear the names of the newspapers and are based on the real domains, they are necessarily different since a domain is assigned only once in each case. For example, while the real FAZ website is found under faz.de, the fake article appeared under the domain faz.ltd. It’s easy to check which domain belongs to which journal: a Google search and a look at the corresponding Wikipedia entry will help you.

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