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'Doppelganger': How France exposed a massive Russian disinformation campaign

Hackers mimicked the official websites of multiple popular French newspapers and even the government
Hackers mimicked the official websites of multiple popular French newspapers and even the government Copyright Flickr
Copyright Flickr
By Sophia Khatsenkova
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French authorities said they uncovered a massive Russia-linked disinformation campaign which targeted multiple newspapers and even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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Doppelganger -- that’s the name given to a vast disinformation campaign against France, allegedly carried out by Russia. 

Its targets: several large French daily newspapers such as Le Parisien, 20 Minutes, Le Monde, and Le Figaro. 

The campaign started last year and also targeted German media such as FAZ, Der Spiegel, Bild, and Die Welt.

How did the campaign work?

The campaign managed to usurp four popular French media websites, including leading newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde.

That's why this practice is called a doppelganger campaign. Hackers mimic articles and the layout of real news websites to confuse Internet users.

For example, Le Parisien's real domain name is leparisien.fr while the copycat website's domain name was leparisien.ltd. 

The campaign was so thoroughly executed that the hackers also add links to some real articles from the official media websites -- a technique called typosquatting. 

They published 49 fake articles linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, according to officials. 

How do we know it was a propaganda campaign?

According to the French authorities, these copycat websites spread mainly pro-Russian content. 

For example, a fake article from the newspaper Le Monde said “French Minister supports the murder of Russian soldiers in Ukraine”, a clearly biased and pro-Kremlin title. 

The same propaganda narratives are usually repeated on these fake websites such as the ineffectiveness of sanctions against Russia, alleged Russophobia in the West, or the negative effects of welcoming Ukrainian refugees into Europe. 

And it’s not only the French media that's been a victim of this campaign but also the French government.

The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also been copied with a fake announcement that a tax on “every monetary transaction” to finance military support for Ukraine has been put in place. 

Due to the time-consuming procedures to remove such domain names, the website remained up for more than two weeks before it was taken down, according to the authorities. 

This means that despite the shutdown of Kremlin-backed media such as Russia Today and Sputnik, Russian-backed disinformation is still being spread through other hybrid channels. 

But according to the French government, so far, this vast disinformation campaign has been mostly unsuccessful in garnering clicks and drawing attention.

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