Trump’s Gone, but Russian Disinformation on COVID-19 Means Fake News Is Here to Stay

A new report details how Russian-linked websites, often featuring ‘Echo’ in their title, are amplifying anti-American, anti-Turkish messages on the likes of Facebook and Twitter via ostensibly legitimate news coverage

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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A selection of fake news websites with Russian links. Disinfo stories include U.S. involvement in the creation of COVID-19 and a Turkish power grab in Central Asia.
A selection of fake news websites with Russian links. Disinfo stories include U.S. involvement in the creation of COVID-19 and a Turkish power grab in Central Asia. Credit: Screengrabs from the Wayback Machine
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

Donald J. Trump may be out of the White House, but an array of Russian-linked websites pushing out fake news are still very much active, a new report by a firm that works closely with Facebook reveals.

Many experts have questioned the effectiveness of disinfo-and-misinformation efforts on social media that have been attributed to Russian state players – especially regarding last November’s U.S. election.

However, a new report by Graphika, which works with Facebook to take down fake groups, pages and accounts, sheds light on how political and coronavirus-related misinformation is still being spread online. And, the report warns, it’s not just on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. 

In fact, the report details a complex web of fake news websites that are creating original content in a number of languages, some perhaps unwittingly written by real journalists, to advance a narrative that serves a “pro-Kremlin, anti-Ukraine and anti-Western” agenda. 

For example, one false report pushed out across the network of websites and amplified on social media raised the “allegation that the U.S. created COVID-19 in a ‘secret lab’ in Europe.”

Graphika noted that this is “a claim that has been made by pro-Russian channels before” – for example, during a massive disinformation operation revealed by the Daily Beast last April, called “Operation Secondary Infektion.” 

Graphica diagram of some of the connections between the news sites, showing how it was possible to pivot from one site to find others in the network.Credit: Screengrab from Graphika report

The firm also noted that this type of story – about the United States using countries that were formerly in the Soviet Union to set up dangerous labs – was also used prior to the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, in 2018, two other websites linked to the Russian operation (britisherald.org.uk and 24-7news.eu) ran “a similar story, this time focused on a U.S. facility in the country of Georgia,” the report stated. 

The report’s revelations underscore how news websites as well as new media create an entire ecosystem of false information in which social media is just one facet. This network deployed a number of online outlets with the name “Echo,” including “Kyrgyzstan Echo,” alongside additional websites.

The Kyrgyzstan Echo “offered a mixture of domestic and geopolitical” content, and revealed how Russian disinformation efforts focus on issues spanning far beyond the United States. For example, a day after the January 6 Capitol Hill riots, the outlet published analyses claiming that “Turkey’s policies in Central Asia were aligned with U.S. and NATO interests, and that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was guaranteeing Kyrgyzstan’s security by establishing an analytical center designed to counter, among other things, pro-democracy ‘color’ revolutions.” 

Another Kyrgyzstan Echo report slammed pro-Western nongovernmental organizations, with the NGOs being accused of “interference in corruption accusations against a High Court judge,” Graphika wrote. The Echo story also “argued that joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union would ‘help solve Tajikistan’s economic problems,’” Graphika added.

Another site called the Kazakhstan Echo pushed out similar messages. On January 7, it published articles claiming that “Central Asia is a ‘tasty morsel’ for American interference, that the U.S. was creating ‘covert military bases’ in Kazakhstan and thus imperiling relations with China and Russia.”

Graphika also focused on Turkey, with its report detailing stories, also published on January 7, which claimed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was “trying to create a new Ottoman Empire in Central Asia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.Credit: POOL New/ REUTERS

Facebook, meanwhile, in its monthly update on what it terms “influence operations,” also stressed the role news media sites play in supporting the disinformation activities on its platform.

“The people behind this deceptive campaign used fake accounts to manage Pages and Groups, drive people to off-platform domains masquerading as independent news entities in countries they targeted. ... Each Page had an accompanying domain and posted content hosted on these websites. It appears that the network accelerated its activity in 2020 and some of its content was re-printed by media organizations in Germany and Russia, including Sputnik Germany,” it reported, referring to the German-languge version of the state-owned Russian outlet. 

The network revealed by Facebook and Graphika had already been exposed by Die Welt and another German outlet called netzpolitik.org last December. However, it has now been linked “to individuals in the Luhansk region in Ukraine and those associated with Borotba, a political group in Ukraine.” With the help of some digital forensics, Graphika managed to link the group to “individuals in separatist-held Ukraine.”

It explained that the websites were all registered to the same email account and “were the main vector for seeding content, and the accounts it ran on Facebook and Twitter were secondary amplifiers designed to draw attention to the websites.”

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