On the eve of a busy electoral year, Russia is sharpening its propaganda and manipulation devices, according to the French agency Viginum.
Everything was ready for a new disinformation campaign. Two years after the start of the war in Ukraine and on the eve of a busy electoral year in the West, Russia is testing and sharpening its propaganda and manipulation devices. On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Armed Forces and Viginum, the agency responsible for monitoring foreign digital interference, presented the conclusions of several months of investigation into a network of “information portals” targeting the territories occupied by Russia in Ukraine but also France, Germany and Poland.
Ironically named “Portal Kombat” According to analysts, this network broadcasts pro-Russian content, “manifestly inaccurate or misleading”in order to “to polarize” public debate and “to weaken” Western support for Ukraine, we explain to Viginum. The Russian actor behind this operation has not yet been named. But for experts on the subject, “the infernal machine” misinformation “is managed directly by the presidential administration in Moscow”.
“Portal Kombat” is based on a network of 193 “information portals” constituted around “three ecosystems” digital, explains Viginum. The first brings together named sites “pravda” available in France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The sites “pravda” were opened in June 2023 to relay Russian or pro-Russian social media accounts, Russian press agencies or institutional sites. They all take up the speech of “special military operation” of the Kremlin and denigrate Ukraine and its supporters.
These sites are linked to another older ecosystem of sites called “news.ru” “aimed at Russian-speaking audiences in Ukraine”. “These sites were created in successive waves between April 3 and December 17, 2022”. They are available with 41 different Ukrainian city names to target local audiences. Strategic cities, such as Donetsk or Luhansk, may have two portals. For this ecosystem, “the distribution strategy seems to be more offensive”explains Viginum. “The sites created since the invasion of Ukraine are no longer simple portals reporting general information or local news but are proving to be real sounding boards for the Russian influence system”, we add. In Ukraine, local Russian-speaking populations sometimes rely on this type of support for information. Finally, the last ecosystem of “portal Kombat” is based on old sites, created since 2013.
Information warfare is only just beginning
“Russia has mobilized significant resources” to build your network, notes an expert on the subject. But in Europe, the operation did not have time to produce any effect. “Despite an elaborate system, the consequences in France remained moderate”explains Viginum, emphasizing the low audience of platforms of this type “pravda” : 10,700 visits in November for the French site, 17,600 for the Polish site, 34,400 for the German site, 36,700 for the English site and 55,000 for the Spanish version. Why worry about it then? “This is a dormant device that can be activated on short notice”, assures a military source. In tactical language, we would speak of prepositioning while waiting for an opportunity. Information warfare is only just beginning. Russia is testing its tools. Westerners want to demonstrate to their competitors that they know how to detect threats.
The network “Portal Kombat” does not produce content but relays others “sources”, including in an automated manner, to be able to increase their audience or their impact. The messages are then broadcast on other media in a logic of “dissemination of narratives”. They target specific audiences, such as conspiracy circles. To make the operation less conspicuous, content intended for manipulation purposes can be mixed with non-politicized or even innocuous flows, particularly on the network. “news.ru”. But the French authorities have identified more strategic maneuvers. During the summer of 2023, “the “pravda-fr” site published content dealing with the various crises occurring in countries like Niger or Gabon, denigrating the French presence in the Sahel”, we note. The same site has also been inserted “as the source of a Wikipedia article dealing with the situation in the Red Sea”. Russia thus broadcasts messages to quietly undermine the credibility of some or raise doubts in others.
By revealing the existence of the network “portal Kombat”, the French authorities hope to raise public awareness of the challenges of disinformation and increase the resilience of opinions. As the sites are hosted in other foreign jurisdictions, they cannot be closed. In any case, the pharmacies which manage them could reopen others elsewhere.
This operation is not directly linked to other maneuvers recently revealed, it is said, whether it is the story of the fake French mercenaries who died in Kharkiv in January, or the Doppelganger operation, revealed in June, where the identity of information sites had been usurped. The characterization and attribution of operations are in any case complex to prove. But all these maneuvers illustrate the extent of disinformation in Moscow’s strategy to weaken the West.