Russian disinformation campaigns change course to bypass Western defenses

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Until July 2020, Ruslan Ostashko claimed he was making $ 15,000 per month posting pro-Kremlin propaganda on YouTube.

But YouTube then “demonetized” its channel, PolitRussia, preventing it from earning a share of advertising revenue from views of its videos. When he tried to challenge the ruling, he was told he should take legal action in the United States.

“We had difficulties with Western social networks,” said Ostashko. “Our primary platform is YouTube and monetization has been turned off for almost two years now.” In response, PolitRussia now calls for donations from readers at the end of each video.

Since 2017, the biggest Western social media companies have tried to tighten their policies on propaganda and disinformation on their platforms. Facebook said it removed more than 6,000 Russia-related accounts, pages and groups from its main site and Instagram during this period. Twitter said it has banned more than 5,000 Russian accounts since 2018 and YouTube said it has deleted more than 2 million Russian videos since 2019.

Numerous banned posts and accounts have been linked to the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed group that has been accused of using social media in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election, or the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. .

In response, Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts have pivoted to find new outlets, said Vasily Gatov, visiting scholar at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

“You can’t predict when Facebook will decide to take something away,” he said. “They have moved from social networks to other communication channels.

Cardiff University researchers have found that commentary sections from readers of Western media such as the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Fox News and Der Spiegel are increasingly being manipulated by propagandists, who then cite the comments. pro-Kremlin as a show of sympathy for the Russian government in the west.

The comments are used as the basis for positive reporting in Russian media, such as the news website inoSMI.ru, with headlines such as “Fox News Readers: Russians Are Not Afraid of Anyone” and “Readers Germans: the Russians will always be one step ahead of NATO.

InoSMI.ru is an online medium that translates foreign press articles about Russia and its interests abroad, for Russian-speaking audiences in Russia and Eastern Europe. He is part of Rossiya Segodnya, a news agency owned and operated by the Russian government. It collects around 270,000 unique visits per day and from February to April 2021, more than two-thirds of its articles followed the “readers think” formula.

Its content is then republished by a vast international network of news sites across Europe, such as PolitRussia and Patriot Media Group, a conglomerate owned by Evgenii Prigozhin, who has been indicted by an American grand jury for organizing activities. for the purpose of interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

Ostashko, who uses user comments to generate content for his channel, said: “We often use your readers’ comments as proof that the West understands us and that our politics are much better than your politicians and journalists. describe. “

Professor Martin Innes, director of the Crime and Security Research Institute in Cardiff, said Western media are targeted because of “their vulnerability and the lack of defenses in place”.

After conducting a “penetration test” with 18 leading national news organizations in the UK, US, France and Germany, the researchers found that no identity checks were being made. done, online pseudonyms can be easily changed and there is a “constant lack of moderation and oversight”.

According to Peter Pomerantsev, a fellow of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the articles contribute to a larger narrative of Russia’s place in the world.

“The great strategic narrative of Russian propaganda is that there is no alternative to Putin,” he said. “The aim is to show that the West is corrupt, unhappy or full of Putin’s supporters. It might seem like a small transaction, but it’s part of a much bigger and more regular investment.

Other efforts to bypass restrictions imposed by social media platforms include the use of so-called mirror sites, new websites that are not blacklisted and appear to repost content from banned outlets.

Newsfront, a website created in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea, and described by the US State Department as part of a network of sites that “proliferate Russian disinformation and propaganda”, has turned out to be use mirror sites to distribute exact copies of their articles on social media.

Clint Watts, a non-resident member of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and co-author of the report, said: “I think what’s interesting is the importance they place on social media for distribution. We catch them almost every week.

Facebook said it was unable to comment on the number of mirror sites identified on the site, but added that the “antagonistic actors” were changing tactics in response to the app and that it was developing its own defenses. in response.

Last week, the company told Reuters it had started using the same approaches it uses to shut down fake account networks in order to deal with networks of real user accounts engaging in “social damage. coordinated “. In July, Facebook used these methods to remove actual accounts associated with the Vietnamese military’s online information warfare unit.

Restricted news outlets also use apparently independent anonymous writers and bloggers to copy the articles verbatim and post them to their feeds, as well as to post their content on alternative platforms such as Reddit, Parler, and Telegram in the hope that it will be posted on just one. of the largest platforms.

“It’s harder for social media platforms to control because if someone posts something on their feed, is it a Russian actor? Probably not. ”Watts said.

Konstantin Knyrik, pro-Kremlin activist and Newsfront editor, claimed that this activity is uncoordinated: “Most of our contributors are not professional journalists, but ordinary people with convictions, who follow us and voluntarily share our documents.

Reddit said its policies prohibit disinformation and that it has taken steps to keep outlets and agents of disinformation on its platform “for years.” Meanwhile, Ostanko has said he’s ready for YouTube to take action against the channel again.

“We have already created a whole community of channels on YouTube, so we have options if they decide to delete our channel again. No one is going to deny us our right to speak.


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