A new, “extraordinarily large-scale” campaign is being launched in Germany to convince the public that anti-Russian sanctions are detrimental, among other things. Copies of well-known news sites are being used, making it difficult for readers to identify fake news.
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They look almost exactly the same as their readers are used to – the same font, logos, structure, news sections and ads. But their content is noticeably different from the original: They are full of misinformation, fake news, and Russian propaganda.
Copies of news websites
These are imitations of German and other Western European news sites. These are copies of websites of major German media outlets such as Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt, tabloid Bild and many others.
Among the fake articles on the fake websites is an article about a teenager who had a bicycle accident in Berlin and died from bleeding. He allegedly failed to notice a pothole in the road, which was unlit because of austerity measures and, consequently, German sanctions against Russia.
But the Berlin police are not aware of any such incident, and besides, the streetlights in the city are not turned off at night, the fake ZDF heute news outlet denied.
Another cleverly disguised rumor concerns Ukrainians buying apartments in Russia with European aid money. Or the gas explosion in a school in Bremen, for which the authors of the text blame austerity measures.
Other articles – masquerading as serious media texts – also report on the federal government’s preparations for a “bloody crackdown” on protests planned for the fall.
A system for spreading fake news
The basic message of such reports is that if Germany had allowed Putin to lead the war in Ukraine, “everything would be better.”
The existence of an entire system of fake news sites was exposed by Lars Winand, a journalist for the German publication T-Online. His site was also a victim of “copying.”
“We noticed it on August 26 and immediately wrote to the operator in the Netherlands. However, it soon reappeared, this time in Colombia,” Deutsche Welle quoted the author as saying. This address was also eventually deactivated.
Yulia Smirnova, an expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London, which studies the spread of disinformation, described the action as “an unprecedented attempt to influence public opinion in Germany.
The campaign, according to her, is also aimed at causing mistrust in the reputable and established media.
It’s not just about the German media. There have already been “spoofs” of the British Daily Mail, the Italian agency ANSA and the French website 20 Minutes.
How does the system work?
In his text, journalist Lars Winand uncovered a whole network of Russian narratives. In fact, he exposed newly created social media profiles that spread the content of fake websites.
The fake profiles had one thing in common: Odette’s name, a generated photo and a job at Netflix. They inserted links to seemingly reputable media outlets in comments to other media posts on social media. Mostly to news stories about high energy prices, Ukrainian military refugees, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But links also appeared in comments on the websites of federal authorities, the U.S. embassy in Germany or the far-right political party AfD.
Websites of major companies, such as Vodafone or Mercedes, have also been targeted and their posts are shown to users as paid advertisements. Comments endorsing the content of the links are also included, but even these, according to the T-Online investigation, come from ready-made fake accounts.
According to Wynand, the campaign in the German environment lasted several weeks, involving hundreds of profiles and thousands of posts. The exact scale is impossible to determine because social media profile administrators often delete such messages.
Meta, the company to which Facebook belongs, is investigating the issue and deleting fake accounts. It has not yet indicated who is behind the action.
A Russian trail?
“The execution and thematic focus are similar to previous disinformation efforts by pro-Kremlin players,” says Smirnova of ISD. Her think tank expected similar operations in the wake of EU sanctions against Russia. In fact, the EU tried to predict the ability of Russian state media to spread Kremlin propaganda.
The Russian trace is also indicated by mistakes in the German language, or perhaps accidentally forgotten words in Cyrillic or the existence of Russian-language drafts of articles.
According to Reset, a British nonprofit organization that seeks to regulate technology corporations, the campaign is also unusually large-scale. “The proliferation of Web sites and the spread of fake news and propaganda by seemingly reputable media whose brand is being abused has never happened on such a scale in Germany,” Deutsche Welle quoted Felix Cartte as saying.
According to WDR public radio digital expert Jörg Schieb, people should always check the Internet address where they read the news. “In the case of fake news, this is usually an address that looks like the established medium, but is not identical,” he warns. Instead of Bild.de, for example, the addresses could be Bild.asia or Bild.pics.