Fake articles made to look like they have been published by legitimate news websites have emerged as a new avenue for propaganda on the internet, with experts concerned about the increasing sophistication of the latest attempts to spread disinformation.
Kremlin supporters are suspected to be behind a collection of fraudulent articles published this year that were mocked up to appear as if they were from al-Jazeera, the Atlantic, Belgian newspaper Le Soir, and the Guardian.
The creators of the articles made them look genuine at first glance by building doppelganger sites that have domain names extremely similar to the news organisations they are purporting to be. The stories were then pushed out to the world through sharing on social media and other websites – often Russian – following up on the article.
The fake Le Soir story in February said Saudi Arabia was funding Emmanuel Macron’s French presidential campaign, while in July a fake al-Jazeera article claimed Saudi was bribing journalists from Russian news agencies not to write critical stories and a piece purportedly from Haaretz, the Israeli publication, said, also in July, that the family of Azerbaijan’s president had invested hundreds of millions in Israel.
The fake Guardian article – which emerged earlier this week – quoted Sir John Scarlett, the former head of MI6, as falsely claiming that the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 was instigated by British and US intelligence services to destabilise Russia.
The people behind the fraudulent article built a website that looked similar to the original and made the domain name look plausible by replacing the i in Guardian with a Turkish ı.
The story was removed from the internet within hours and Facebook deleted posts including links to it.
Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council digital forensic research lab and an expert in the spread of disinformation, warned that the fake articles were still having an impact even after they have been debunked and that the misuse of English might not even matter if the main target of the propaganda were Russian speakers.
Nimmo said fakers had shown progress in recent months from the attempt to mimic Le Soir earlier this year, which had a “substantially different” URL. “This is sophisticated stuff but the language is hamfisted. They can’t use the word ‘the’, which is a classic signature of Russian speakers,” he said.
“It makes the fake obvious to native speakers, but maybe English language speakers are not the primary targets. It is being used much more and shared much more in Russian language, which makes me think the target is a Russian one.”
A Russian website called Pravosudija.net has translated fake articles purporting to be from al-Jazeera, the Atlantic and Haaretz.
Nimmo said it was impossible to prove who was behind the articles but that it was “very likely that the people who did this are Kremlin supporters”.
Even after the articles are proven to be fake they are still being spread. Ren TV, which has a history of producing pro-Kremlin content, did a piece portraying the removal of the article as a deletion by the Guardian of a true article, an angle also taken by an Armenian outlet following the fake Haaretz piece on the Azerbaijani royal family.
Creating fake foreign articles and then seeing them followed up by domestic news providers is a propaganda technique that Russia is accused of using before. In 1983 the KGB allegedly placed a story in a Indian journal that claimed Aids was a product of US military research. This story was then followed up by Soviet organisations and spread around the world.
Facebook says it is taking a number of steps to halt the spread of disinformation from such sites. As well as placing adverts offering tips on how to spot false news, in Germany and France it is testing a collection of measures to combat hoax articles, including easier ways to report issues to Facebook and marking stories as disputed.
However, the creation of lookalike news websites shows the technique is evolving quickly. Because the fake articles are published on doppelganger websites rather than through hacks of the original site they are difficult, if not impossible, for media organisations to stop.
For now the most effective approach appears to be ensuring that the articles are swiftly taken down from the internet after they are published and ensuring Google and the social media giants remove references and links to the article.
But even then, the propagandists may have already achieved their aim. “With any fake all it takes is for one genuine outlet to broadcast and you have laundered the narrative,” Nimmo said. “Once it’s out there its hard to convince people its a fake.”