Western media outlets targeted by pro-Kremlin trolls

32 prominent media outlets across 16 western countries have been targeted by pro-Kremlin trolls, according to a new report from Cardiff University.

Researchers from the Crime and Security Research Institute at the University said that there is evidence of a major influence operation that is systematically manipulating Western media to spread propaganda and disinformation which “supports Kremlin interests.”

Websites which have been repeatedly subjected to these activities include: The Daily Mail; Daily Express and The Times in the UK; America’s Fox News and Washington Post; Le Figaro in France; Der Spiegel and Die Welt in Germany; and Italy’s La Stampa.

The team identified 242 stories where provocative pro-Russian or anti-Western statements were posted in reaction to articles of relevance to Russia.

These comments were then fed back to a range of Russian-language media outlets who used them as the basis of stories about politically controversial events.

They were also reported on by other ‘fringe media’ and websites with track records of spreading disinformation and propaganda, and some that have been linked by Western security services to Russian intelligence agencies.

For their analysis, the University employed data science pattern recognition and detection techniques to reader comments, which revealed a number of unusual behaviours associated with some accounts posting pro-Kremlin content.

These multiple inauthenticity and co-ordination signals, although individually relatively ‘weak’, when aggregated together, suggest that the commenting activity may be orchestrated.

Some of the commenting platforms allow other users to vote on posts. Pro-Kremlin comments repeatedly received an unusually high number and proportion of ‘up-votes’ when compared with typical messages by ‘normal’ users.

“This influence campaign is especially significant due to its international scale and its sophisticated manipulation of a wide range of media outlets, websites and social media in a co-ordinated way,” said Martin Innes, director of the crime and security research institute. “By hijacking the comments sections of Western media brands, it has been able to present its propaganda as indicative of mainstream opinion.”

Innes added: “The Western media outlets we investigated are especially vulnerable to this kind of manipulation, with no security measures in place to prevent, deter or detect this kind of activity. Trolls have been able to easily switch between personas and identities, which is something the technology actually enables.”

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