Russian disinformation network targets politicians ahead of EU elections

A growing Russian disinformation network is targeting European Union countries ahead of the EU Parliament elections scheduled for June, researchers say, largely focused on spreading false claims about the war in Ukraine and political leaders who are critical of Russia.

The disinformation network, which operates under the “Pravda” name and masquerades as news websites, is now targeting all 27 EU countries with its content. Researchers from the European Digital Media Observatory say the network’s use of artificial intelligence to produce high volumes of content provides an insight into Russia’s disinformation tactics ahead of the U.S. presidential election. 

Darren Linvill, a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who specializes in social media disinformation research, told CBS News that Russian disinformation tactics have evolved. “Russians are masters at narrative laundering, the process of placing a false or misleading story and then weaving it into online conversations in such a way that the original source is obscured,” he said.

“They will discredit institutions, undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process and attack moderate political candidates, both Democrat and Republican, in an attempt to drive further extremism,” he said.

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A CBS News analysis found the sham news websites published dozens of false claims over the past two weeks alone. Among them, that the U.S. will soon ramp up the conflict in Ukraine; the U.S., British and German governments were responsible for the attempted assassination of Slovakia’s prime minister; and EU officials are intensifying a witch hunt amid searches for Russian interference in EU offices.

Professional media organizations tend to link news articles to the journalists who reported the information in the name of transparency. However, these fabricated articles do not. Instead, they link to Telegram accounts such as Rybar, a channel founded by Russian military blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk, who previously worked for the Russian Defense Ministry. Rybar has quickly grown to over 1.2 million subscribers for its pro-Russian stance on the conflict in Ukraine.

Thanos Sitistas, a lead researcher on the Pravda network for the observatory, told CBS News the Russian disinformation network may be testing which narratives have an impact. “The tool/s they use offer a great amount of automation,he wrote in an email.For the most part, they pick up content from certain Telegram accounts and reproduce it as it is.”

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CBS News

“They look for weaknesses and strong points and will eventually adjust accordingly,” he said. “They also map the local information landscape and could adapt their future strategies, by ascertaining which narratives have impact and which don’t.”

Articles across Pravda EN and its sister websites in several European languages follow the same structure of information pulled from pro-Russian Telegram accounts. 

The observatory’s researchers underscored a sharp uptick in new Pravda websites in March, citing evidence that the network has expanded to at least 28 countries, including 19 EU member states. It first began with five websites launched in 2023 targeting German, English, French, Spanish and Polish languages. 

The French government found in its own investigation the websites all had a common IP address hosted on a server traced to Russia, as well as the same external links and sections.

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CBS News

Recent analysis from Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center said Russia “remains the most committed and capable threat” to the 2024 U.S. presidential election, with new forms of influence and interference efforts, including the use of generative AI.

The observatory’s researchers said the Pravda network’s websites show “a high level of automation” as content is published 24/7 and in high volumes. A CBS News analysis found that as many as 70 articles were published in one hour on Pravda EN, with a majority focusing on the conflict in Ukraine. 

U.S. agencies have increasingly warned of the usage of generative AI by foreign actors to attempt to influence the 2024 election.

Advances in generative AI are lowering the barrier to entry for U.S. adversaries including Russia to spread disinformation, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in February, while also making their tactics “more realistic and difficult to detect.”

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