French military and cybersecurity experts say they have identified a Moscow-based network spreading propaganda and disinformation in Western Europe.
The French agency Viginum, created in 2021 to detect digital interference by foreign entities aimed at influencing public opinion, says Russia is paving the way for a new wave of online manipulation in the run-up to the European elections and other crucial votes this month. year.
The agency says the online network, which it has dubbed “Portal Kombat,” includes at least 193 sites spreading pro-Russian propaganda defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and criticizing the Kiev government. Much of the misinformation spread via social media sites and messaging apps targets those who spread conspiracy theories, it says.
Viginum researchers, who identified and analyzed the network between September and December last year, say the massive disinformation campaign can be traced back to Moscow. A pro-Russian channel on the French mobile and desktop messaging app Telegram publishes “almost continuously” up to nine articles per hour.
The European Commission, NATO and UN agencies have listed disinformation among the biggest threats to democracy in 2024. At a recent high-level conference in Brussels, a senior NATO official said that disinformation was now classified as a “national security matter” and that there was recognition among allies that hybrid attacks using disinformation “could rise to the level of an armed attack”.
UN communications secretary-general Melissa Fleming told the conference that “disinformation (is) used to create not only the fog of war, but also more suspicion and more hatred” and undermines peacekeeping forces.
Addressing the conference, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, declared that this new war was “not about bombs that can kill you”, but about words and ideas “that can colonize your mind”.
Věra Jourová, EU Vice-President for Values and Transparency, responsible for the media and disinformation portfolios, said: “Every day we see the Kremlin’s actions aimed at spreading propaganda and ‘interfere in democracies. From Putin’s blatant lies exposed to a hidden network of propaganda sources that has just been exposed, the Kremlin is leaving no stone unturned. And neither does the EU.”
She added that she welcomed the “strong determination” of France, Germany and Poland to “fight back”.
Sites linked to the disinformation network do not produce original material but were created to flood the Internet with content from Russian and pro-Russian social media figures, Russian news agencies and other official accounts loyal to Moscow, say French defense specialists.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago, these sites have targeted Russian communities in Ukraine and “several Western countries”, including France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain , the United Kingdom and the United States.
The Viginum report, published Monday, states: “Although this network of at least 193 sites initially covered news from Russian and Ukrainian localities, it changed the day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and began to target the occupied Ukrainian territories, then several Western countries supporting Ukraine. and its population.
“The main goal seems to be to cover up the Russian-Ukrainian conflict by presenting the ‘special military operation’ positively and denigrating Ukraine and its leaders. Highly ideologically oriented, this content repeatedly presents inaccurate or misleading narratives.
The report indicates that the network “also directly contributes to polarizing the French-speaking public debate on digital technology”. To reach a wide audience, it selects “pro-Russian propaganda sources based on the targeted locality, massive automation of content distribution or search engine optimization”.
Viginum claims the propaganda campaign involves three “ecosystems”, one of which uses the website’s name pravda Next come the national top-level domains (fr, de, pl, es, com), created in June 2023 and presenting “identical technical characteristics: a common IP address hosted on a server located in Russia”.
“Furthermore, these sites disseminate content with similar pro-Kremlin narratives, particularly on the alleged legitimacy of the ‘special military operation’, denigrating Ukraine and its leaders, or criticizing the ‘collective West’,” he indicates.
Another network of websites targeting primarily Russian-speaking audiences in Ukraine was created between April 3, 2022 – a little over a month after the Russian invasion – and December 17, 2022. “Some sites target very specific locations and strategic, like Kherson or Mariupol. ”, says the report.
Although most of the propaganda focuses on the Ukrainian conflict, Viginum claims that last summer the French site Pravda published information on “different crises” involving the presence of French troops in the Sahel, notably those from Niger and from Gabon.
However, security experts believe that the mass propaganda and disinformation campaign appears to have limited success: average traffic across the five portals in November 2023 was 31,000 visits, with the one targeting France being the least visited.