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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Russian “Doppelgänger” strikes back. How “Polityka” and Polish Radio were impersonated

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As part of Russian disinformation activities before the European Parliament elections, websites were created that were identical to the websites of recognized media websites. In Poland, the websites of the weekly “Polityka” and Polish Radio were impersonated. We describe the details of the Russian disinformation campaign targeting the European elections.

The EUvsDisinfo cell operating within the StratCom team of the European External Action Service (EEAS) has just published another report on Russian disinformation activities in European Union countries, this time around the European Parliament elections. The report was titled “Doppelganger strikes back: FIMI activities in the context of the EE24”.

The acronym FIMI, i.e. (Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference), means any behavior that threatens or may have a potentially negative impact on democratic values, procedures and political processes. Such activity is manipulative in nature and is carried out in a deliberate and coordinated manner. Events FIMI types intensified after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. EUvsDisinfo devoted a report to them published a year after the invasion. We described it in Konkret24.

Doppelganger, in turn, is a campaign originating from Russia aimed at manipulating public opinion, reducing support for Ukraine, sowing divisions between countries supporting Ukraine and promoting the Russian narrative. In April 2024 we described, how, using advertising content that is not marked as paid, a pro-Russian propaganda network sends content among Internet users in Europe that discourages aid to Ukraine and undermines the policy of the European Union. These messages reached at least 38 million internet users in France and Germany.

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The activities now described by EUvsDisinfo consisted of spreading disinformation via websites impersonating recognized media operating in European countries. Fake websites with information were also created. These messages were then amplified on social media such as Platform X and Facebook to maximize their reach and impact.

The report analyzes in detail the Russian campaign that targeted the last elections to the European Parliament. It describes in detail the methods used. It sheds light on the threat coming from abroad to undermine European democratic processes. “Although the effects of this campaign are difficult to measure, it did not cause significant disruptions in the normal functioning of the electoral process, nor did it pose a significant threat to it,” write the authors of the report.

Fake websites of European media, including “Polityka” and Polish Radio

The campaign targeted societies mainly in France and Germany, but also in Poland, Italy and Spain. For each of these countries, appropriate messages were adapted regarding: migration, energy and climate, the war in Ukraine, as well as promoting or discrediting specific political parties and their candidates in order to change voters' attitudes.

It consisted of two components:

Content production. Recently created domains impersonating seven European media entities were used for this purpose, as well as a network of fake news websites operating since 2023.

Strengthening the message. False content was spread using thousands of fake social media accounts.

Created using domain cloning and typosquatting techniques (creating websites that are almost identical to real sites but with typos in the URL), the websites distributed content intended to exploit political polarization and “vulnerable spots” in society to promote Euroscepticism and devalue selected political entities and governments while supporting others. The goal was to influence voters. The websites were created between January and May 2024, a few months before the elections. For security reasons, we do not provide their URL addresses. Graphically, they were confusingly similar to the originals. They differed in the ending of the address, e.g. instead of “it” there was “in”, instead of “pl” there was “link” or “icu”.

As part of the campaign, fake websites of the following media were created: “Die Welt” (in Germany); “Le Point”, “Le Parisien” (in France); “La Stampa”, “La Repubblica” (in Italy) and two from Poland – the weekly “Polityka” and Polskie Radio. The content posted there attacked the rulers of European countries and the European Union itself. Examples of titles of articles published there: “Macron's empire is doomed to failure”; “There is no help. The EU will destroy the Italian economy”; “European politicians do not want to return to reality”; “EU forces force Italy to legalize abortion.”

Fabricated websites of French and Italian media.Euvsdisinfo.eu

Both fabricated Polish media websites were created in early April 2024. Two texts were published on the alleged website of “Polityka” with the titles: “Poland's food security dies with independence”; “Poland today. Voter disappointment and political repression.” However, six articles appeared on the alleged website of Polish Radio entitled: “The unpleasant truth. The EU will cope without Poland”; “Ukraine will remain overboard of the European Union”; “The policy of the Tusk government threatens the future of the Polish nation”; “By helping Ukraine, Poland is ruining itself”; “The Polish economy is a victim of EU policy”; “Ukraine will remain overboard of the European Union.”

Websites impersonating “Polityka” and Polskie RadioEuvsdisinfo.eu

A network of fake websites. The topic in Poland includes, among others: refugees from Ukraine

Additionally, during the Doppelganger campaign, a network of 47 fake websites was created in 2023. After 2 p.m. in Germany and France, as well as in Italy, Poland, Spain, the United States, Israel and Ukraine. Its aim was also to influence the elections to the European Parliament in 2024.

The authors of the report sampled 657 articles published by 20 fake websites that were part of the network. Activity increased as the elections approached. Two weeks before them, 65 articles related to the elections were published, and in the last week – 103.

Messages varied from country to country. In France, the main focus was on migration and the war in Ukraine, while in Germany it was on energy and climate issues and the war in Ukraine. The content addressed to Polish Internet users concerned Ukrainian refugees, migration, and the war in Ukraine.

How fake content was spread. Four stages

However, simply creating fake content was not enough. In order to increase their reach, a network of fake social media accounts was used. The spread of fake content on Platform X had four stages:

Polish flag, hussar and fake content

Many fake accounts that took part in the campaign have already been deleted. However, we managed to find one Polish-language account that, on June 1, 2024, published a link to a fabricated “Polityka” website and to an anti-EU article titled “Poland's food security dies with independence”.

The account was created on X (then Twitter) in January 2021. It has the Polish flag in its name. The profile picture shows a hussar. So far, almost 34,000 have been published. entries. It has only 795 followers (as of June 23, 2024), but among them there are two right-wing politicians – Zdzisław Krasnodębski (until recently a PiS MEP) and Marek Jurek (a long-time MP, for 1.5 years the Marshal of the Sejm of the 5th term, later an MEP). Account followers also include those who regularly spread false content. The recent activity of this account focuses on publishing messages from the Polish right, anti-EU and anti-immigrant content.

Entry on a Polish-language account taking part in the Doppelganger campaign.X.com

To further increase the reach of fake content on Facebook, advertising was paid for some of it on the platform. Multiple redirects were also used here. The largest number of such posts with anti-EU content in many European languages ​​appeared in March and April 2024.

The report concludes: “The cross-platform nature of the campaign highlights the sophistication and adaptability of threat actors. The use of various social media platforms and modification of operational methods throughout the campaign demonstrates commitment to its goals and the ability to evolve in response to platform defenses.” [społecznościowych]”.

Main photo source: EUvsDisinfo/Shutterstock



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