A host of major European news websites have been targeted by a pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation campaign, a new report has claimed.
The websites have been hit by what researchers call a “major influence operation”, via reader comment sections on news stories.
Some 32 media outlets across 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 La Stampa in Italy.
The campaign is systematically manipulating Western media, researchers at Cardiff University say, by posting provocative pro-Russian or anti-Western comments on articles related to Russia.
The team at Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute identified 242 such stories.
The comments were then used by Russian-language media outlets as the basis of stories about political events and were also reported on by other fringe media outlets with track records of spreading disinformation and propaganda.
Some of the comments were found to have unusually high numbers of "upvotes" or "likes" on platforms where these functions are available, suggesting an attempt to present these comments as representative of public opinion.
Western security services have linked some of these to Russian intelligence agencies.
Director of the Crime and Security Research Institute Professor Martin Innes, who heads the Open Source Communications Analytics Research (OSCAR) programme, said the campaign uncovered was “especially significant” because of its international scale and sophisticated manipulation of media outlets.
“By hijacking the comments sections of Western media brands, it has been able to present its propaganda as indicative of mainstream opinion,” he said.
“The Western media outlets we investigated are especially vulnerable to this kind of manipulation, with no security measures in place to prevent, deter or detect this kind of activity. Trolls have been able to easily switch between personas and identities, which is something the technology actually enables.”
Researchers used data science pattern recognition and detection techniques, to highlight unusual behaviours associated with some accounts posting comments.
They found through forensic behavioural analysis that accounts posting pro-Russian comments were repeatedly changing their personas and locations.
“As mainstream social media platforms have become more alert to the risks of foreign state influence operations, so disinformation actors and propagandists have been seeking new vulnerabilities in the media ecosystem to exploit,” Professor Innes said.
“By adopting a ‘full spectrum’ media strategy that blends together information from social and mainstream media outlets, this sophisticated campaign has had the potential to shape the thoughts, emotions and behaviour of several diverse international audiences in relation to high-profile media stories.
“Most importantly, the particular tactics and techniques used to ‘hack’ the comments function in the media ecosystem make it almost impossible to attribute responsibility for the pro-Kremlin trolling behaviour on the basis of publicly available open-source data. It is therefore vital that media companies running participatory websites are more transparent about how they are tackling disinformation and more proactive in preventing it.”