Western media outlets are being targeted by pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation as part of a “major influence operation”, according to a new report.
Researchers from Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute have uncovered evidence that 32 prominent media outlets have been targeted by disinformation via their reader comments sections online.
British publications targeted by the campaign include The Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Times, according to the study, while US sites such as Fox News and the Washington Post were also hit.
The operation was discovered as part of an investigation into online activities during heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine this year. However, tactics such as these have been escalating consistently since 2018, the study found.
Comments often targeted pro-Russian or anti-Western stories, researchers found. Thereafter, these were used by a range of Russian-language media outlets as the basis for provocative news stories.
Fringe media outlets and those with confirmed links to Russian intelligence services also drew upon comment sections for content. The non-state Patriot Media Group, for example, published articles featuring headlines such as “Daily Mail readers say…” or “Readers of Der Spiegel think…”
According to researchers, the popularity of such articles suggests there is “extensive support” for Russia and/or the Putin administration among western citizens. Stories were also spread to audiences in Central and Eastern Europe, with Bulgaria a hotspot for such content.
Professor Martin Innes, Director of the Crime and Security Research Institute, described the campaign as “especially significant” due to its scale and sophistication.
Notably, he added, trolls have flocked to website comment sections amid increased efforts from social media sites to tackle misinformation.
“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,” 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,” Professor Innes added.
- 6 Scottish inventions that changed the world
- Scotland economy boost with Data Lab digital project
- Bio-inspired ‘soft robots’ being developed at Glasgow Uni
As part of the study, researchers employed pattern recognition and detection techniques to reader comments. This revealed a series of unusual behaviours associated with accounts posting pro-Kremlin content, which suggested the activity may be orchestrated.
Pro-Kremlin comments often received an “unusually high number” and proportion of ‘up-votes’ compared to posts by ‘normal’ users.
Further analysis of account profiles posting pro-Kremlin comments found that some users repeatedly change personas and locations. One particular account had 69 location changes and 549 changes of name since its creation in June 2020.
“Trolls have been able to easily switch between personas and identities, which is something the technology actually enables,” Professor Innes said.