Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laughs as he and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, unseen, meet with their supporters in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laughs as he and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, unseen, meet with their supporters in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, pool

Russian Disinformation Networks Detailed in New State Department Report

Several English-language websites working together to push Kremlin talking points during the COVID outbreak caught the eye of U.S trackers.

Russian disinformation appearing on English-language news websites spiked at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new State Department report that reveals new details about how pro-Russian websites work with one another to amplify specific stories and narratives.

Between February and April, sites that carry Russian disinformation and pro-Kremlin articles may have reached as many as 350,000 readers per article from one site alone. A new report from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which tracks foreign influence efforts, looks at how Russia uses a network of sites, and those sites’ affiliations with other online organizations, to spread misleading information or information that’s designed to amplify Kremlin talking points.

“Senior Russian officials and pro-Russian media sought to capitalize on the fear and confusion surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic by actively promulgating conspiracy theories. For example, they promoted conspiracy theories centered around false U.S. bioweapon infrastructure. We observed five of the seven outlets promoting this narrative across 30 articles. On 20 February, New Eastern Outlook published an article in both Russian and English claiming that the U.S. deployed a biological weapon against China,” notes the report released on Wednesday. 

The center’s findings echo previous findings on Russian disinformation tactics to spread false information and conspiracy theories around COVID-19 that Defense One has reported

Four outlets, Global Research (which the State Department has determined has the most reach), New Eastern Outlook, SouthFront, and Strategic Culture Foundation, shared 141 articles between two sites within the group during the period in question. “Of particular note, Global Research re-posted 50 videos originally published by SouthFront. Because of this pattern of cross-posting content, these four outlets formed an especially interconnected set of nodes within the broader network of the seven websites examined,” said the State Department, in its report. 

U.S. officials estimate the size of Global Research’s audience as more than 12 million visits during the review time, ) with more than 4 million visits for Southfront, one million for the Strategic Culture Foundation; and 540,000 for New Eastern Outlook. Some of the sites are more specific than others in terms of target audience, but there is overlap. SouthFront, for instance, “combines Kremlin talking points with detailed knowledge of military systems and ongoing conflicts. It attempts to appeal to military enthusiasts, veterans, and conspiracy theorists, all while going to great lengths to hide its connections to Russia,” whereas New Eastern Outlook shares content with the military-focused site Veterans Today, “whose managing editor said NEO has been a ‘wonderful partner’ and described their cooperation as ‘a marriage made in heaven,’” the report says. 

Michael Averko, who is listed as a contributor to the site Strategic Culture Foundation, also publishes in other sites and mainstream U.S. outlets, pushing pro-Kremlin talking points and working to undermine the bipartisan, intelligence community consensus on Russian interference in the 2016. He’s been paying particular attention to the candidacy of former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia Evelyn Farkas, who served under Obama and is running for Congress in New York’s 17th District. In addition to the Strategic Culture Foundation, Averko has also landed articles targeting Farkas in The Yonkers Tribune. In July, Averko received a visit from FBI agents who asked about links between the Strategic Culture Foundation and Russian Intelligence. “The only question I answered was on whether the SCF has any ties to Russian military intelligence. I answered by saying I can't say for sure and doubt it. I added that my impression is that the SCF comprises politically interested Russians, who want to be involved with the issues they cover. I added that if anyone has issues with my commentary, they should deal with it in a direct manner,” he said in an unsolicited email sent to Defense One and other recipients. (Defense One has not independently verified this claim.)

Cybersecurity company FireEye published a report on July 28 outlining a Russian disinformation group targeting eastern Europe that routinely poses as legitimate journalists, sometimes by stealing the password credentials for legitimate news sites and then posing disinformation. 

The extent of Russian disinformation going into the 2020 election remains hidden from the public, according to multiple lawmakers who have been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials. On Tuesday, senators were briefed on threats to the election during a classified session. Sen. Richard Blumentha, D-Conn, remarked on Twitter that he was “Shocked & appalled” by what he had seen. “From spying to sabotage, Americans need to see & hear these reports,” he said.

On Wednesday, the State Department announced that it was offering a $10 million bounty for  “information leading to the identification or location of any person who works with or for a foreign government for the purpose of interfering with U.S. elections through certain illegal cyber activities” through a program called Rewards for Justice.