Reader comments sections of prominent western news websites have been infiltrated by pro-Russian trolls seeking to manipulate the picture of public opinion, researchers believe.
The major influence operation is said to have targeted 32 media outlets online across 16 countries, including the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Times, Fox News and The Washington Post.
Almost 250 stories were found to contain provocative pro-Kremlin or anti-Western sentiments in the comments about matters of relevance to Russia – such as tensions in Crimea – since a probe began in April.
The ongoing campaign is thought to have escalated since 2018, but more recently it has exploited the US and UK withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “This report highlights the threat to our democracy of Russian state backed misinformation on the internet.
“The UK is working closely with international allies to stand up to the Kremlin trolls peddling lies.”
Comments are often posted early on and receive an unusually high number of up-votes on sites that allow other readers to like and dislike, according to the Foreign Office-backed Open Source Communications Analytics Research (Oscar) programme at Cardiff University.
These reactions are then selectively used as the basis for stories in Russian media to suggest western public approval of Kremlin policies or discontent against western governments.
For example, an aggregator service called inoSMI.ru – which is connected to the Russia Today network – has a headline featuring a comment from an article on The Times, that translates to, “British: Putin realised that Nato will not fight for Ukraine (The Times)”.
They were then amplified via social media, as well as on fringe websites with track records of spreading disinformation and propaganda, some with links to Russian intelligence agencies.
Though some of the comments could originate from western users, researchers say there are signals in the data that indicate a degree of inauthenticity with some accounts that point towards it being a coordinated effort.
Professor Martin Innes, director of the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University, told the PA news agency it was easy to create an account and quickly begin posting comments on some sites without any identity checks.
“We were posting a comment as soon as you signed up, on a number of them you can post a comment and it’s almost instantaneously displayed, so it’s quite a vulnerability really and it’s open to be manipulated by state actors but anybody else as well,” he said.
Forensic behavioural analysis of account profiles posting pro-Kremlin comments showed that some of these users are repeatedly changing their personas and locations.
In 2014, moderators for the Guardian noticed pro-Kremlin comments in their Ukraine coverage, though there was no conclusive evidence about who was behind it.
Professor Innes told PA: “My best assessment or best guess almost on this is, it happened in 2014, then I suspect a lot of the attention shifted more towards creating fake social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and places like that.
“But as those platforms have got better at defending themselves I have a feeling that those people who want to engage in this kind of activity have drifted back to these kind of sites, so probably from 2018, 2019 onwards and it’s kind of been growing since then.”