Propaganda: why pro-Russian fake websites persist

More and more doppelgangers from news portals such as "Spiegel" or "Welt" are circulating online.

Propaganda: why pro-Russian fake websites persist

More and more doppelgangers from news portals such as "Spiegel" or "Welt" are circulating online. Instead of the original content, they spread pro-Russian fake news. As early as summer 2022, research by "t-online" and ZDF uncovered more than 30 fake websites that were specifically spreading disinformation on social networks, but above all on Facebook. "It's a long-term, persistent campaign," says Julia Smirnova, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which researches disinformation.

The fake sites, also known as the doppelganger campaign, are still popping up. "The goal is: large-scale disinformation," says Smirnova. It is the largest covert pro-Russian campaign of its kind to date. The strategy is comparable to that of spam messages. They are not perfect fakes, but should reach as many people as possible.

According to the analyst, the fake media websites have the same messages over and over again: anti-US narratives, criticism of the Green Party or discrediting of Ukraine. "With claims hostile to the US, Russian propaganda in Germany is trying to sow doubts about transatlantic relations," the expert explains. The US is also blamed for the war in Ukraine. The propaganda targets the Greens because the party clearly condemns the Russian war of aggression.

Because the war against Ukraine is continuing, Russia's need for propaganda continues, explains Lea Frühwirth from the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS). The institute examines radicalization tendencies and conspiracy stories on the internet.

The double campaign is not limited to the German-speaking area, says Frühwirth. A report by the French General Secretariat for Defense and Security from June 2023 also lists France, Lithuania, Latvia, Great Britain, Ukraine, the USA, Israel and the United Arab Emirates as affected countries.

The EU identified Russian actors as responsible for the digital information manipulation. At the end of July 2023, it put five organizations linked to the Russian state and seven people on the sanctions list.

"Of course, it would be ideal to have the websites removed or made inaccessible," says Fruehwirth. It is important to prevent people from being reached and influenced by the campaign. Smirnova from the ISD advocates making the registration of domains more difficult.

Both researchers also say that it is important to sensitize readers and strengthen their media skills. The ongoing Doppelganger campaign should be clarified. In France, for example, the Foreign Ministry informed the entire public about this, reported Frühwirth.

The Federal Ministry of the Interior said that there was no decrease in Russian disinformation and that it took the threat of foreign influence and manipulation very seriously. "Russia continues to rely on a complex network of state or state-controlled actors," said a spokesman.

The authority has been concerned about the forgeries since the campaign was uncovered and informed the dpa a year ago, at the end of August 2022, that the reports show "the extent of pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation in Germany". These pursued the goal of undermining trust in politics, society and state institutions, said a spokesman at the time.