Wednesday 9/29/21
MISINFORMATION

Study: Pro-Russian trolls 'infiltrate comments' on global media sites

The ongoing campaign is thought to have escalated since 2018, but more recently it has exploited the US and British withdrawal from Afghanistan
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Photo: Pexels.

The reader comments sections of prominent Western news websites have been infiltrated by pro-Russian trolls seeking to manipulate the picture of public opinion, researchers believe.

The major influence operation is said to have targeted 32 media outlets online across 16 countries, including the Washington Post and Fox News in the United States, and Britain's Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Times.

Almost 250 stories were found to contain provocative pro-Kremlin or anti-Western sentiments in the comments about matters of relevance to Russia - such as tensions in Crimea - since a probe began in April.

The ongoing campaign is thought to have escalated since 2018, but more recently it has exploited the US and British withdrawal from Afghanistan.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: "This report highlights the threat to our democracy of Russian state backed misinformation on the internet. The UK is working closely with international allies to stand up to the Kremlin trolls peddling lies."

Comments are often posted early on and receive an unusually high number of up-votes on sites that allow other readers to like and dislike, according to the British Foreign Office-backed Open Source Communications Analytics Research (Oscar) programme at Cardiff University.

These reactions are then selectively used as the basis for stories in Russian media to suggest Western public approval of Kremlin policies or discontent against western governments.

For example, an aggregator service called inoSMI.ru - which is connected to the Russia Today network - has a headline featuring a comment from an article on the British daily The Times, that translates to, "British: Putin realised that NATO will not fight for Ukraine (The Times)."

They were then amplified via social media, as well as on fringe websites with track records of spreading disinformation and propaganda, some with links to Russian intelligence agencies.

A coordinated effort

Though some of the comments could originate from Western users, researchers say there are signals in the data that indicate a degree of inauthenticity with some accounts that point towards it being a coordinated effort.

Professor Martin Innes, director of the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University, told Britain's PA news agency it was easy to create an account and quickly begin posting comments on some sites without any identity checks.

"We were posting a comment as soon as you signed up, on a number of them you can post a comment and it's almost instantaneously displayed, so it's quite a vulnerability really and it's open to be manipulated by state actors but anybody else as well," he said.

Forensic behavioural analysis of account profiles posting pro-Kremlin comments showed that some of these users are repeatedly changing their personas and locations.

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