New Russian disinformation operation aims to overload fact-checkers – report

According to a new analysis by Finnish software and research company Check First, a new Russian propaganda technique aims to propagate specific bogus narratives by having reporters post and disseminate their debunkings widely.

According to this investigation, pro-Russian actors are actively bombarding journalists with fake news in order to dry out verification resources and increase the impact of disinformation.

The unique aspect of Operation Overload is a barrage of emails sent to newsrooms and fact-checkers across Europe. The authors of these messages urge recipients to verify content allegedly found online. The email subject lines often include an incitement to verify the claims briefly described in the message body. This is followed by a short list of links directing recipients to posts on Telegram, X, or known pro-Russian websites, including Pravda and Sputnik.

Check First report

Russia’s “Operation Overload” revealed by Finnish company Check First

The ongoing plan, dubbed “Operation Overload” by Finnish software company Check First, which published the study, involves anonymous pro-Russian agents contacting media in an organized effort to verify potential fake news.

The deception relies on the fundamental concept that “all publicity is good publicity.”

Verification requests typically target Ukraine, France, and Germany and take the form of emails and social media mentions.

Four primary aspects of Operation Overload, according to Check First:

  1. Email campaign directly targeting newsrooms and fact-checkers;
  2. A barrage of manipulated content amplified on social media;
  3. Pivotal role of Telegram in seeding and spreading false content;
  4. A CIB campaign on X to reach targets.

So far, Operation Overload has targeted over 800 news organizations in Europe and beyond, sending out around 2,400 tweets and 200 emails.

Use of Telegram in the disinformation operation ‘Overload’

Telegram played an important role in this disinformation operation, as the majority of links provided to journalists directed them to the messaging platform.

Check First found that they had released over 250 fact-checks on the false narratives created for Operation Overload in recent months.

Telegram (t.me) is the most commonly linked domain with 175 occurrences, indicating a heavy reliance on this platform for sharing information or misinformation. Telegram channels are often used in misinformation campaigns due to their ease of anonymity and mass dissemination capabilities, the analysis concludes.

For example, the sender of one email described in the report presents himself as a concerned citizen who claims to have witnessed doubtful allegations in Russian media and requests that reporters investigate. Instances like these are numerous.

This demonstrates Operation Overload’s goal of reaching a larger audience, regardless of whether the news is refuted, according to Check First.

The perpetrators employ what Check First refers to as “content amalgamation,” which involves combining several content types to build a plausible, multi-layered narrative.

The rush of media generates a false sense of urgency among journalists, resulting in the operation’s success.

“The operation serves both domestic propaganda and FIMI [foreign interference and information manipulation] purposes. While our report mainly concentrates on the latter, it is essential to acknowledge that the considered fake content originates on Russian social media platforms and spreads on Russian-language websites and blogs, including state media outlets, with the manifest aim of promoting the Kremlin’s military agenda to local audiences.”

Check First report

Russian fake news targeted Ukrainian refugees in the EU

Five specific topics were highlighted, each characterised by used keywords identified in the emails: 1) Olympics in France: Paris, Olympics, Olympic, Kremlin, Macron; 2) Ukraine: Russian, Ukrainian, media, official, spreading.

Much of the fake news consists of videos and storylines designed to denigrate Ukrainian refugees living in the EU. One fraudulent movie, misattributed to Euronews, circulated the claim that a Ukrainian beauty spa in Poland is subjecting clients to mosquito bites to help them lose weight.

This fake was quickly debunked by the TV channel.

Check First encourages journalists to remain attentive and redouble their efforts to combat disinformation content, despite the apparent doubts about the usefulness of fact-checking.

Check First’s advises to media and fact-checkers

The company advises journalists to confirm the identity of anyone who sends in their concerns via email or social media.

“When receiving emails or DMs, especially when alluding to “Kremlin propaganda,” be wary of unsolicited emails and direct messages that contain links or attachments related to Ukraine, Russia, or other politically sensitive topics,” Check First urges.

Fact-checkers are encouraged to work together across media outlets to discover patterns and potential coordinated activities, thereby increasing overall knowledge and response.

Check First also recommends that media outlets improve their cybersecurity training and standard procedures, such as reporting emails that look suspicious.

The fact-checking research concluded, “Train your team to recognize content amalgamation, where different types of manipulated content combine to create a more convincing false narrative.”

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