Russian Trolls Target News Websites

Russian Internet trolls are targeting British, as well as other Western, media outlets to promote Vladimir Putin’s administration and Kremlin policies, research has revealed. A major operation to influence public opinion saw comments posted on Western media articles in support of Russian interests.

Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute discovered 32 mainstream media websites in 16 countries were targeted, including Mail Online, the Express and the Times. Almost 250 stories were found to contain provocative pro-Kremlin or anti-Western sentiments in the comments about matters of relevance to Russia, such as tensions in Crimea, since a probe began in April.

Prof Martin Innes said the "sophisticated" campaign takes advantage of the fact that while social media sites have put more resources into detecting influence campaigns, traditional mainstream sites have fewer security measures to stop people creating multiple, false identities. He told BBC News: “There has been a tendency to think about influence operations as just pivoting around the use of fake social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook and the like. “What is important about this research is showing how other kinds of media can be and are being manipulated and on an almost industrial scale.” The tactic was first spotted in 2021, but the operation is believed to have been escalating since at least 2018 and recently focused on the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In one example highlighted by the researchers, a Mail Online story last month about the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan featured 2,500 comments from the public. 

Some of this disinformation emerges organically, from blog writers selling sham remedies and niche news sites searching for clicks. And some of it’s manufactured by propaganda outlets like Russia’s RT and Sputnik News. Fuelled by the emotions they provoke, these stories can spread faster on social media than accurate news. By selecting a small number of comments, a Russian news article was then headlined: "The British have compared the rise of the Taliban to power with the end of Western civilisation".

The Cardiff University researchers say this was one of 18 recent stories on the fall of Kabul that were produced using reader comments in the UK and US, supporting Russia's narrative about the end of liberal democracy, the failure of NATO or made a link to the willingness to support Ukraine. The Cardiff researchers say this was just the latest part of a long-running campaign and they have identified 242 stories where provocative pro-Russian or anti-Western statements were posted in reaction to articles relevant to Russia. 

 Researchers used pattern recognition techniques to analyse reader comments, which suggested some accounts were posting pro-Kremlin content in an organised manner.

Some of this disinformation emerges organically, from blog writers selling fake remedies and niche news sites searching for clicks and some of it’s manufactured by propaganda outlets like Russia’s RT and Sputnik News. These were published to suggest extensive support among Western citizens for Russia or President Vladimir Putin or for a particular policy. They would typically be published in Russia, but also other European countries, particularly Bulgaria. These would then be further amplified on social media platforms.

Prof Martin Innes said the "sophisticated" campaign takes advantage of the fact that while social media sites have put more resources into detecting influence campaigns, traditional mainstream sites have fewer security measures to stop people creating multiple, false identities. One account was found to have changed location 69 times and changed name 549 times since it was created last June. 

Other websites targeted include the US's Fox News, Le Figaro in France, Der Spiegel and Die Welt in Germany, and Italy's La Stampa, although Russia has consistently denied being involved in propaganda and misinformation operations. 

Standard:       BBC:         Metro:      New York Times:      Yahoo:      Salisbury Journal:

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