Kremlin creates clone sites of famous media to spread fake news – research

The main topics chosen by Russia to spread lies through “lookalikes” are the war in Ukraine and Gaza and the climate “crisis” in the EU, according to a CNN study.

The article How Russian trolls are meddling in the world’s second-biggest democratic vote emphasizes that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns in European countries have intensified amid the European Parliament elections.

“Artificial intelligence and deepfakes are quickly becoming the tools of choice by those looking to spread false narratives,” chief security advisor for SentinelOne, a US cybersecurity company, Morgan Wright said.

SentinelOne, together with EU DisinfoLab, has researched online media to unveil a Russia-based influence network operating in the EU since 2022 named “Doppelgänger.”

“The network puts out clone sites of prominent European media organizations, including major publications like the Guardian and Bild in Germany, as vehicles to spread misleading and false content. There is a focus on fake stories to influence attitudes on subjects like the wars in Ukraine and Gaza,” the repot says.

EU DisinfoLab also found Russian disinformation reports on climate and ecology. One of these fakes was claiming that wind turbines were causing toxic pollution. Probably, Moscow sees renewable energy as a threat to its oil and gas exports. “The aim also appears to be to sow confusion and division, rather than to bring about a change in climate policy,” the author said.

The EU blacklisted four Russia state media outlets

The EU has blacklisted Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Izvestiya, and RIA Novosti. The Czech Republic-based new multilingual media platform Voice of Europe was also banned. The motivation says that these media outlets spread Russian propaganda and support the war in Ukraine.

“These media outlets are under the permanent direct or indirect control of the leadership of the Russian Federation, and have been essential and instrumental in bringing forward and supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and for the destabilisation of its neighbouring countries.,” the EU stressed.

“The Russian Federation has engaged in a systematic, international campaign of media and information manipulation, interference and grave distortion of facts in order to justify and support its full-scale aggression against Ukraine, and to enhance its strategy of destabilisation of its neighbouring countries, and of the EU and its member states,” the EU declaration reads.

Earlier, the Prague-based Voice of Europe website was shut down by the Czech authorities. Later, it resumed its operations from a hosting in Kazakhstan. According to the Czech intelligence, it was financed by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ally, former leader of the Ukrainian pro-Russian party Viktor Medvedchuk, accused of treason in Ukraine, whom Moscow exchanged for Ukrainian PoWs, Mariupol defenders. According to the Czech government, Voice of Europe was used to influence public opinion ahead of the European elections.

In our research we have identified news websites in the EU and the US which reposted or quoted articles and interviews produced by the pro-Russian media platform “Voice of Europe” hit by a scandal and sanctioned by the Czech government.

The citations of this notorious platform helped us identify other news sites in Europe which promote pro-Kremlin narratives, and the politicians who support their efforts. Russian state propaganda media cite the EU-based website’s articles to confirm the ‘authoritativeness’  of the reporting and the information shared. 

In the Voice of Europe case we have seen that Moscow attempts using EU-registered news websites disguised as neutral or alternative to legitimize Russian propaganda narratives and increase the credibility of its statements, as almost no one in the world believes Russian state propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik anymore.

Putin’s reaction to the ban of Russian propaganda media in the UE

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia would respond to the ban on broadcasting its media in Europe. “Measures are being worked out,” she said.

The ban on Russian propaganda websites in Europe forced the Russian president to react. Vladimir Putin said that Western powers are preventing Russian media from working, and he emphasized that this “does not fit” with freedom of speech.

“Wherever our journalists try to work, they are hindered. Just everywhere. Employees are intimidated, bank accounts are closed, and vehicles are taken away. You name it, they do it. Is this freedom of speech? Of course not,” Putin said.

Commenting on the West’s closure of Russian media outlets, the Russian dictator noted that Russian media convey Moscow’s point of view to the audience. At the same time, Putin avoided commenting on the identified cases of disinformation (not information or point of view) in Russian propaganda media.

Waves of bans on Russian propaganda media

In the run-up to the European elections, the EU has made it a top priority to combat a growing wave of Russian disinformation, with the main goals of dividing allies over issues such as support for Ukraine and damaging Europe’s relations with countries of the so-called Global South. European officials have noted that the volume of such destructive content on social media platforms has increased markedly over the past five years.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU banned Sputnik and RT from broadcasting and replicating their content. The EU extended the same measures to RT English, RT UK, RT Germany, RT France, and RT Spanish. NTV, Rossiya 1, Pervyi Kanal, and REN TV also lost their licenses to broadcast in Europe. However, Russia’s RT and Sputnik are still accessible in the EU, two years after the ban.

As part of its 11th package of sanctions, the EU banned the broadcasting of Russian channels RT Balkan, Tsargrad, Oriental Review, New Eastern Outlook, and Catechon in June 2023. Then a similar decision was taken against the Spas TV channel, the Rossiya Segodnya media group and its executive director Kirill Vyshinsky, Regnum editor-in-chief Marina Akhmedova, and propagandist Alexander Kots.

The “Voice of Europe” case might be just a tip of an iceberg. In our recent research we have identified a large pro-Russian websites network in Europe spreading narratives that fit the Kremlin agenda.

Based on the website and search analytics revealed that a range of news websites are interconnected not only by similar topics and pro-Russian narratives but also by mutual citations and referral traffic from one site to another.

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