West hits Vladimir Putin’s fake news factories with wave of sanctions | Russia

Twelve major disinformation outlets used to back Vladimir Putin have been hit with sanctions in an online crackdown on “false and misleading” news allegedly orchestrated by Russian intelligence.

The Foreign Office announced last week that sanctions would be imposed on the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian-based troll factory. Two other alleged disinformation websites, New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review, were also targeted.

The Internet Research Agency has been exposed in the past for paying Russian-based bloggers £500 a month to flood the internet with pro-Putin comments on chat rooms, social media and the comment sections of Western publications. Government investigators also say Russian intelligence supports international news and analysis websites that promote the Kremlin’s view of the invasion of Ukraine.

Tom Southern, of the Center for Information Resilience, a British non-profit social enterprise that fights disinformation, said the impact of Russian campaigns to manipulate information in the Ukraine conflict was mitigated by the concerted action of governments and social media companies. “It seems to be a turning point against this fake news,” he said.

The US Treasury has imposed sanctions on the three outlets identified by UK authorities. It has also taken action against at least nine others, five of whom have faced sanctions since the invasion of Ukraine. One of the US-sanctioned websites is the Strategic Culture Foundation, which describes itself as a “platform for in-depth analysis of Eurasian and global affairs”.

The website cited Russian claims of a “secret project” to turn Ukraine into a nuclear power. One of its authors also claimed that the novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018 was likely to be a British “false flag” operation to “incriminate, demonize and delegitimize Russia”.

The US Treasury describes the website as an online journal registered in Russia and run by the country’s foreign intelligence service. He says, “It publishes conspiracy theorists, giving them a wider platform to spread misinformation, while trying to obscure the paper’s Russian origin so readers are more likely to trust the source.”

The website’s Twitter and Facebook accounts have been suspended since September 2020. The Foundation for Strategic Culture did not respond to a request for comment, but says on its website that allegations that it was linked to Russian intelligence were “unsubstantiated” and were “a glimpse into the dystopian future of the suppression of dissenting voices by governments previously known as democratic”.

US officials also sanctioned three other outlets allegedly linked to the Strategic Culture Foundation: news outlets SouthFront, NewsFront and InfoRos. According to US officials, all three are linked to Russian intelligence services.

Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a US group that tracks online disinformation, said it didn’t appear that the tactics previously used to interfere in the US election system – with thousands of accounts on many platforms – were widely deployed. for the Ukrainian conflict.

He said Russian-backed websites were used to spread fake news and propaganda more widely, but were routinely blocked on social media. “They try to introduce dirty information into the online ecosystem and hope it will be picked up by websites and people with greater reach,” he explained.

Russian state-backed news channel RT had its UK broadcasting license revoked by media regulator Ofcom last week. Analysts said the channel’s output was just the “tip of the iceberg” of the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign.

A fake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy calling on his soldiers to lay down their arms. Photography: Twitter

The Ukrainian government has faced disinformation attacks, including a fake video released online last week of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy advising his soldiers to lay down their arms. It was quickly dismissed by Zelenskiy as a “childish provocation”.

Liz Truss, the foreign minister, said last week that the government was taking action against Russian propaganda, both from the Kremlin press office and online disinformation outlets. She said: “We are going further and faster than ever to hit those closest to Putin – from senior oligarchs to his prime minister and the propagandists who peddle his lies and misinformation. We hold them accountable for their complicity in Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.