France says it uncovered major Russian disinformation effort; Israel said targeted

Russian entities set up counterfeit news sites disguised as popular outlets to publish content critical of pro-Ukraine stances

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony in Moscow on June 12, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik / AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony in Moscow on June 12, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik / AFP)

France on Tuesday said it had uncovered a major Russian disinformation campaign, with false news items hostile to Ukraine made to look like they were published by prominent French news media.

The campaign also appears to have targeted Israeli and Jewish media.

Western states have been acutely concerned about an intensification of Russian-led disinformation campaigns, as Moscow seeks to influence public opinion across the world over its invasion of Ukraine.

“France condemns these actions unworthy of a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said.

“The French authorities are working closely with their partners to defeat the hybrid warfare led by Russia,” she added.

France has for several years sounded the alarm over alleged Russian disinformation campaigns in areas of Francophone Africa, particularly those where the Russian mercenary group Wagner has been active.

The campaign was carried about by “Russian actors,” with “state entities or entities affiliated to the Russian state,” then working to amplify its impact, according to Colonna.

“This campaign is based in particular on the creation of fake web pages impersonating national media and government sites as well as the creation of false accounts on social networks,” she said.

Many of the articles targeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and expressed alarm about the economic cost of supporting Kyiv’s defense.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, speaks with France’s President Emmanuel Macron (not pictured) during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima on May 20, 2023. (Ludovic Marin/AFP)

The campaign is believed to have involved techniques including producing fake articles on a page identical in all respects to those of the legitimate sites of media organizations, but with different domain names — for example .ltd instead of .fr.

At least four French daily newspapers — Le Parisien, Le Figaro, Le Monde and 20 Minutes — were victims of the operation.

The leading Israeli news site, tied to Channel 12 news, was faked under the address, according to Haaretz.

The counterfeit site published content critical of Ukraine, including an article headlined, “Solidarity with Ukraine costs too much.” Some of the stories had bylines and photos of well-known Israeli writers.

The US-based Jewish Journal news site was also targeted in the campaign, Haaretz reported.

Other major media were also targeted, particularly German ones including Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Der Spiegel and Bild.

The French foreign ministry itself foiled an attempt to create a fake reproduction of its own website, Colonnna said.

She added Russian embassies and cultural centers had “actively” participated in amplifying the campaign.

“The campaign is a new illustration of the hybrid strategy that Russia is implementing to undermine the conditions for peaceful democratic debate and therefore undermine our democratic institutions.

“No attempt at manipulation will deter France from supporting Ukraine in the face of the Russian war of aggression,” she added.

The operation uncovered by the government is “the second phase” of a campaign that had already come to light in 2022 “but with more sophisticated modes of action intended to circumvent countermeasures and be less visible,” a security source who asked not to be named told AFP.

This so-called “Doppelganger” operation had been documented in 2022 by the organization EU Disinfolab, and Meta, the parent company of Facebook.

“Meta hoped that its report would put an end to the operation. This was not the case,” said the security source.

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