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The results of new research suggest that the comments section for stories on prominent media websites across many western countries are the focus of major Kremlin-based activities to try and influence public opinion.
Multiple Outlets, Many Countries
The Open Source Communications Analytics Research (OSCAR) programme at Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute has reported finding evidence that 32 prominent media outlets across 16 countries are the subject of a major influence operation to spread propaganda and disinformation that supports Kremlin interests.
Which Media Outlets?
The media outlets that the researchers say have been subjected to the systematic manipulation include The Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Times, Fox News and the Washington Post (in the US), Le Figaro (France), Der Spiegel and Die Welt (Germany), and La Stampa in Italy.
242 Examples Detected
The researchers reportedly identified 242 stories/articles of relevance to Russia where strong pro-Russian or anti-Western statements were posted in reaction to them. The research indicates that the pro-Russian/anti-Western comments were then fed back to different Russian-language media outlets where they were used as the basis of stories used to suggest there that there is extensive support in the west for Russia or President Putin. The stories based on the comments, which used headlines such as/similar to “Daily Mail readers say..” or “Readers of Der Spiegel think…” are believed to have been spread to audiences in Central and Eastern Europe e.g., Bulgaria.
Operation Dating Back To 2018
It is believed that the operation by Kremlin trolls, which was first uncovered following research into online activities relating to tensions between Ukraine and Russia this year, may date back to 2018.
It appears that the comments sections of articles in the websites of many western media outlets are vulnerable to this type of operation due to them having no significant security measures in place.
Ducking and Diving
The researchers used ‘forensic behavioural analysis’ of account profiles to reveal that pro-Kremlin posters repeatedly changed their personas and locations to avoid detection. Evidence was also found to indicate co-ordination between Russian state-owned media and other outlets linked to the non-state Patriot Media Group, which were using parts of the comments.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Since social media platforms such as Facebook were found to be used by other states in an attempt to influence US elections and the UK (Brexit) referendum, it appears that these states have found other, out-of-the-spotlight ways to influence certain audiences. In this case, it appears that the western news media websites are part of a process to support stories that are ultimately supposed to promote Russia and its president to audiences in Central and Eastern Europe. It is probably not a great surprise that one state would attempt to influence the politics of other states using covert online tactics, but the scale and scope of this particular operation (multiple outlets across multiple countries) have made it stand out. It seems that mainstream media sites will now have to tighten their security to stop people (for example) creating multiple, false identities and seeking to use the websites for underhand purposes.