Suspected Russian Disinformation Campaign Rumbled

An investigation by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) claims to have unearthed a widespread disinformation campaign aimed at influencing online conversations about several topics, that appears to originate in Russia.

Facebook Accounts

Sixteen suspected Russian fake accounts that were closed by in early May 2019 led researchers to an apparent campaign which stretched across 30 social networks and blogging platforms and used nine languages. The campaign appeared to be focused away from the main platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and was played out instead on blogging sites, subreddits, and online forums. 

Even though the scale of the apparent disinformation operation appears to be beyond the abilities of  a small or ad hoc group (the scale has been described as “remarkable”), and that the operation appears to have been working out of Russia,  the DFRLab has pointed out that there is not enough real evidence to suggest that the Russian state / Kremlin is behind it and that the investigation is still ongoing.

What Kind Of Disinformation?

It has been reported that the broad topic areas of the disinformation appear to reflect Moscow’s foreign policy goals e.g. Ukraine, Armenia, opposition to NATO, although conversations have been started and steered around subjects relating to Brexit, Northern Ireland, the recent EU elections, immigration, UK and US relations, the recent turmoil in Venezuela and other issues. Some of the disinformation is reported to have included:

Fake accounts in 2018 of an alleged plot, apparently discovered by Spanish intelligence, to assassinate Boris Johnson.

Shared screenshots of a false exchange between Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, and chief EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, which appeared to show a secret negotiation behind Theresa May’s back. Also, false information was spread about the Real IRA.

The publishing of a fraudulent letter in French, German, and broken English, featuring a screenshot of a letter allegedly written by Italian-Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza was published on various platforms as an attempt to influence the European Parliament elections in May 2019.

Failed and Discovered

The main reasons why the disinformation essentially failed and was discovered were that:

  • Communications were generally not sent via the main, most popular social media platforms.
  • The campaign relied on many forged documents and falsehoods which were relatively easy to spot.
  • So much trouble was taken to hide the source of the campaign e.g. each post was made on a single-use account created the same day and not used again, that the messages themselves hardly saw the light of day and appeared to lack credibility.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The fact that someone / some power is going to the trouble to spread disinformation on such a scale with regard to influencing the politics and government of another country is worrying in itself, and the knowledge that it is happening may make people more sceptical about the messages they read online, which can help to muddy the waters on international relations even more.

If messages from a foreign power are used to influence votes in a particular way, this could have a serious knock-on effect on the economy and government policy decisions which is likely to affect the business environment and therefore the trading conditions domestically and globally for UK businesses.  Some have described the current time as being a ‘post-truth’ age where shared objective standards for truth are being replaced by repeated assertions of emotion that are disconnected from real details.  This kind of disinformation campaign can only feed into that and make things more complicated for businesses that need to be able to have reality, truth, clear rules, and more predictable environments to help them reduce risk in business decisions.