Fake News and Cleverly Edited Content: Russian Propaganda Infiltrates Western Organisations to Discredit Ukraine and Europe

Politics - June 25, 2024

Bombarding the West and its information platforms with fake news to create disinformation in opposing states and reinforce the narrative of exaggerated power at home. This is the Kremlin’s strategy, according to a report by the Finnish software and methodology company Check First: an entire system set up by Russian propaganda to weaken and alarm Western journalists. The report, compiled by Check First, speaks of the so-called ‘Operation Overload’, in which anonymous Russians have used many tactics to manipulate news content, in particular destabilising fact-checkers, with the ultimate aim of changing public opinion on the issue of the Ukraine crisis. Indeed, this is the main target of Russian propaganda, along with news about France and Germany. The ‘tip of the iceberg’ is the so-called ‘Operation Matryoshka’, a pro-Russian disinformation campaign revealed in January 2024 by the activist group Antibot4Navalny. The Kremlin’s strategy was to use X-accounts to publish false and misleading news stories in order to strengthen journalists’ opinion of Russia and weaken Ukraine’s position. In short, pro-Russian hackers were able to sabotage X-profiles and use them to publish fake news, which, according to the report, “gave disinformation an illusion of authenticity, thereby increasing its impact”. All of this fits perfectly with the disinformation strategies used since the days of the Soviet Union in its propaganda against the Atlantic bloc.

Any publicity is good publicity

Check First was able to obtain the emails sent to around twenty different organisations. They all received emails from unknown authors asking them to check news reports (gradual and ad hoc) with links to the sources: posts on Telegram, on X, Russian websites such as Sputnik and Pravda. These were identical emails sent to different companies, which makes it clear that this was a broader communication strategy. Very often, journalists were even asked to give maximum visibility to the messages sent. For example, the report shows the conversation between a German journalist from CORRECTIV and one of the pro-Russian hackers: in response to the company’s reply that the video sent was probably a fake, cleverly edited to create disinformation, the hacker expressed his intention to send the news to other organisations for verification, that he wanted to use CORRECTIV’s verification to have ‘more credibility’, and asked the journalist if his work could be ‘seen by as many people as possible’. In fact, the conversation shows that the real intention of the pro-Russian hackers was not to obtain information about the concrete case, but to use authoritative sites to propagate their news and the images they provided, regardless of their relevance to reality. The strategy is therefore based on the principle that ‘any publicity is good publicity’, especially when the ultimate goal is disinformation. Of course, it is all cleverly orchestrated: the emails come from the fake accounts of citizens pretending to be concerned about some equally fake events, using Gmail accounts (which anyone can open for free) and asking questions like: ‘Hey, look at this, is this real or not? The strategy, which dates back to August 2023 and has intensified since then, includes links to various sites, particularly Telegram.

Content aggregation

The hackers used what is known as “content amalgamation”, a strategy that, by using different types of content, can create the appearance of a detailed and therefore truthful story, demonstrating a great effort to build alternative narratives. Simple complaints on social media by private users, specially shot and edited videos, fake newspaper articles: all were used to create such a sense of alarm among Western journalists that they would then undoubtedly report the news, or at least instil doubt in their readers. Check First says that ‘the operation serves both domestic propaganda and FIMI (foreign interference and manipulation of information) purposes. Although our report focuses primarily on the latter, it is important to recognise that the fake content in question originates from Russian social media platforms and is disseminated on Russian-language websites and blogs, including state media, with the apparent aim of promoting the Kremlin’s military agenda to local audiences. An example of a cleverly edited video is reported by the Euronews website, which has been at the forefront of the issue. The footage showed a woman being arrested by Polish police for spreading the false news that a Ukrainian beauty salon in Poland was subjecting clients to mosquito bites to help them lose weight. The newspaper’s logo had been added to the top right-hand corner of the pictures. However, it turned out that the original footage dated back to 2021, when a Polish woman was arrested in Gdansk. So the video had nothing to do with Ukraine: it had simply been cleverly edited to change the way the Ukrainian people were seen in Russia. Another method of pro-Russian propaganda is the manipulation of images. One unusual content was graffiti photos: murals that did not exist in reality, but were created by programmers to be shared in emails, on websites, Instagram stories and even in some videos. The images were created using real images of walls and houses in European cities (very often France and Germany), on which the mural was then superimposed with such meticulousness as to make it very believable. Most often, these depictions targeted Western politicians, such as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or French President Emmanuel Macron, and sought to amplify issues that were already hotly debated in the public sphere. The images were also presented from multiple angles, highlighting the extreme effort and rather exorbitant cost required to produce such a detailed and successful result.

Disinformation on Ukraine, Europe and Navalny

As expected, the content was aimed at strengthening Russian propaganda at home and destabilising the international public’s perception of Ukraine. The vast majority of the content analysed was targeted at Kiev, using the main narratives: vilification of Zelensky, attribution of crimes to Ukrainians, and the false spread of Nazi ideas in Ukraine. However, much of the content uncovered by Check First focused on the European Union and some of its member states in particular: for example, the UEFA European Football Championship in Germany or the Olympic Games in France were targeted. “We observed a sharp increase in French-language content focused on the Olympic Games during the period March-April 2024,” the report reads. “This content aimed to discredit France as the host country, weaken the French authorities and spread fear about the security of the event. Many videos suggested an imminent virus epidemic in Paris or predicted possible terrorist attacks linked to the event. Another narrative is that of the ongoing economic crisis in Europe, obviously using fake news, such as the one attributed to the German media Deutsche Welle, according to which 43% of female students would be willing to provide sexual services to cover university expenses (forgetting that education is free in Germany). An economic crisis which, according to the Russian narrative, was the direct result of the West’s military aid to Ukraine. The disinformation also targeted the family of the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, with eight videos targeting his wife and daughter. For example, one said that Darya Nalvalny had taken advantage of her father’s death in terms of publicity by indulging in an extravagant lifestyle, while another said that his wife Yuliya had been forced to have an abortion after becoming pregnant by her lover.