ZDF has uncovered how Russian actors try to influence public opinion in Germany with fabricated news. meta reacts.
Counterfeit media sites that look deceptively similar to Bild, FAZ, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel, Tagesspiegel, t-online or Die Welt, but spread unfounded fear of hunger and death. Germany’s sanctions against Russia are to blame. Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees are badmouthed. The crap is spread through many accounts on social networks, through links in comments under real media reports, on Facebook pages of embassies, hospitals, big brands or the AfD, and sometimes also through Russian embassies.
ZDF found out about this system at the end of August. Meta Platforms then carried out an investigation – with the support of the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) – and found that the disinformation campaign was by no means limited to Germany.
“We deleted a large network originating in Russia, which primarily targeted Germany and also France, Great Britain, Italy and Ukraine,” said Facebook operator Meta. The main topic was Russia’s war against Ukraine: “The undertaking began in May and revolved around a sprawling network of over 60 websites that, with a great deal of effort, imitated real websites of European media.”
Petition and paid advertising
The perpetrators liked to spread their fake news and memes based on it via YouTube videos, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, petitions on Change.org and Avaaz, and the Russian blogging platform LiveJournal. Accounts under fictitious identities were used. Meta calls this “coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB)”. In addition, the perpetrators advertised their false “reports”. Facebook and Instagram took in a good 100,000 euros, which is an insignificant amount for the data company.
And while Meta was still blocking Internet domains, the perpetrators set up new websites. “This indicates continued investment in these activities across the Internet,” write Ben Nimmo and David Agranovich, Meta’s threat detection and response officers. “This is the largest and most complex undertaking from Russia since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It shows an unusual combination of sophistication and mallet methods.” The whole thing happened in German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian. As of the week of July 20th, all newly created websites were in German.
According to its own information, Meta deleted 1,633 accounts, 703 pages, and one group on Facebook in this context, and only 29 accounts on Instagram. The appendix to Meta’s report contains a selection of relevant Internet domains and Telegram channels.
China supports Russian propaganda
It also includes an account of the deletion of a much smaller Chinese disinformation network. It has been running campaigns in English, Czech, Chinese and French with different goals since autumn 2021. False accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well as two Czech petition platforms were used for this.
A campaign tried to gobble up the USA. Another, in Czech, attacked the government of the Czech Republic for supporting Ukraine and warned against messing with China. In addition, there was a campaign that interfered with domestic political untruths in the US election campaign and attacked politicians from both major US parties.
The latter was new to the meta managers. So far, China’s US-related disinformation campaigns have focused on geopolitical issues, not US domestic politics. A Chinese cluster campaigned for the right to free access to firearms, against access to abortion and against democracy in Hong Kong. Another Chinese cluster took the opposite view, except for Hong Kong democracy, of course. Meta claims to have disabled 81 accounts, eight Pages, one group on Facebook and two accounts on Instagram.