A wave of fake news sites with links to Russia appears in the United States

A wave of fake news sites with links to Russia appears in the United States

A wave of fake news sites with links to Russia appears in the United States

In the depleted field of journalism in America, a handful of websites have emerged in recent weeks with names suggesting a focus on news close to home: DC Weekly, the New York News Daily, the Chicago Chronicle and a sister publication more recent, the Miami Chronicle. .

In fact, they’re not local news outlets at all. They are Russian creations, researchers and government officials say, intended to mimic today’s news agencies in promoting Kremlin propaganda by interspersing it with a sometimes odd mix of stories about crime, politics and culture.

While Russia has long sought ways to influence public discourse in the United States, the fake news stories — at least five so far — represent a technological leap in its efforts to find new platforms to mislead people. unsuspecting American readers. According to researchers and officials, these sites could well form the basis of an online network ready to surface disinformation in the run-up to the US presidential election in November.

Patrick Warren, co-director of Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, which has exposed stealthy Russian disinformation efforts, said advances in artificial intelligence and other digital tools have “made this even easier to do and to make the content even more targeted.” . » .

The Miami Chronicle website first appeared on February 26. Its slogan falsely claims to have broadcast “the Florida News since 1937.”

Among some truthful information, the site last week published an article about a “leaked audio recording” of Victoria Nuland, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, discussing a shift in US support for Russian opposition under siege after death of Russian dissident. Alexei A. Navalny. The recording is fake, according to administration officials who would only speak anonymously to discuss intelligence matters.

The campaign appears to involve remnants of the media empire once controlled by Eugene V. Prigozhin, a former associate of President Vladimir V. Putin whose troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, intervened, experts and officials say. in the 2016 presidential election between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Prigozhin died in a plane crash near Moscow in August after leading a brief military uprising against the Russian army, but his continued operations underscore the importance the Kremlin places on its information battles to worldwide. It’s unclear who exactly took the helm.

“Putin would be a complete idiot to let the network collapse,” said Darren Linvill, Mr. Warren’s associate at Clemson. “He needs the Prigozhin network more than ever.”

Clemson investigators revealed the Russian connections behind the DC Weekly website in a report released in December. After their disclosure, Russian stories began appearing on another site created in October, Clear Story News. Since then, new opportunities have emerged.

The websites of the Chicago Chronicle and the New York News Daily, whose names are clearly meant to evoke the city’s famous Daily News tabloid, were both created on January 18, according to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which monitors domains.

All outlets use the same WordPress software to create the sites and, therefore, have similar designs.

Media outlets wear logos and names that evoke a bygone era of American journalism, in an effort to create a semblance of authenticity. A Chicago Chronicle actually operated from 1895 to 1907 before closing its doors for a reason that would be all too familiar to today’s struggling newspapers: it was unprofitable.

They also regularly update the latest major news, creating a current impression at first glance. An article about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Mr. Trump’s eligibility to remain on the primary ballot in Colorado appeared on the Miami Chronicle website a few hours after the decision.

Furthermore, the websites are poorly constructed, and even partly incomplete. The Miami Chronicle’s “about” page, for example, is filled with Lorem Ipsum, the dummy Latin text. Some images on the site have file names from the Russian original. (Neither site publishes professional contact information.)

The goal is not to entice a sophisticated reader to dive deeper into the website, let alone subscribe, Mr. Linvill said. Rather, the goal is to lend an aura of credibility to social media posts spreading disinformation.

The effort follows a model the Kremlin has used before: laundering allegations that first appear online through lesser news organizations. This information has spread online again and is appearing in even more news organizations, including Russian news agencies and state television networks.

“The page is just there to appear realistic enough to fool a casual reader into thinking they are reading a real American brand article,” Mr. Linvill said.

DC Weekly published a number of articles on the Kremlin beginning in August, according to the Clemson study. One of them contained a false claim that the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky purchased more than $1.1 million worth of jewelry from the Cartier boutique in New York during her visit to the United Nations in september.

The site claims to have a staff of 17 journalists, but these appear to have been fabricated. The biography of the author of this story, Jessica Devlin, used as a profile photo a photograph of Judy Batalion, the author of a best-selling book about Jewish women who fought the Nazis. Ms. Batalion said she had never heard of the site or the author until fact-checkers contacted her.

Other articles that appear on the sites appear to have been taken from real news organizations, including Reuters and Fox News, or from English-language news agencies of Russian state media, such as RT. Some stories casually included instructions or responses from one of OpenAI’s chatbots, Mr. Linvill and Mr. Warren wrote in the study.

The New York News Daily recently published an article on alleged US plans to interfere in this month’s Russian elections, the winner of which, Mr. Putin, is a foregone conclusion. This information was spread on social media by people with long-standing ties to the Kremlin state media apparatus.

Last week, another post appeared to come from a fictional X character. The New York News Daily published a story on what was purported to be a thread announcing a $115 million Hollywood blockbuster about Mr. Zelensky. The X user’s name was Brian Wilson and he was described as an associate producer at Paramount Pictures.

The account has only posted to X 85 times, the vast majority of them regarding films over two days in February. A week later, the user suddenly announced a deal to produce a biopic of Mr. Zelensky — “The Price of Victory” — in a series of posts. These were followed last week by two others featuring current-day videos of actors Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren manipulated to appear as if they were wishing him success with the film.

The videos appear to come from Cameo, the celebrity greeting app, which was featured in a previous Russian campaign revealed by Microsoft in December.

Brooke Robertson, a defender for Paramount Pictures, said no one named Brian Wilson worked at the studio. A Cameo spokesperson said Monday that the company was not aware of the videos, but added: “Typically, when posts misusing content from Cameo come to our attention, we request their removal of the platform in question. » Later that day, both videos were blocked on the X account for violating intellectual property rights. X then suspended the account.

Articles about the film spread widely on Telegram. Many users cited the New York Daily News as a source and said it highlighted an abuse of Western financial aid in Ukraine’s war against Russia. That narrative has also been amplified by media outlets previously linked to Russian intelligence agencies, including NewsFront and Politnavigator, said Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center.

Articles typically receive hundreds of posts on various platforms, including X, Facebook and Telegram, as well as Reddit, Gab and Truth Social, although it is difficult to measure the exact reach. Together, they could theoretically reach thousands or even millions of readers.

“This is absolutely a prelude to the type of interference we will see in the election cycle,” Mr. Linvill said. “It’s cheap, very targeted and obviously effective.”

Jeanne Noonan DelMundo reports contributed.