France and several other Western countries allied with Ukraine accused Russia on Monday of developing a network of websites to promote pro-Russian propaganda and undermine their governments.
The accusation raises the possibility of an influx of disinformation two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ahead of important elections in Russia, the European Union and the United States, as well as the Olympic Games in Paris — all occurring this year.
Russia has denied the claim.
The countries said Russia used social media and the internet to belittle Ukraine’s resilience, attempt to sway public and international support, amplify Russia’s success in the war, discredit Ukrainian resistance and justify the invasion.
The French watchdog Viginum, which monitors foreign digital activity and websites, identified a network dubbed Portal Kombat with 193 websites that spread pro-Russian information. Viginum found that between June 23 and September 19, 2023, the sites published over 150,000 pieces of content that was usually reported by Russian or pro-Russian personalities or media members.
“The objective seems to be to cover the Russo-Ukraine conflict by presenting the ‘special military operation’ positively and denigrating Ukraine and its leaders,” a French diplomat said, using Moscow’s term for the invasion.
While the websites have not gotten a lot of traction, unlike previous disinformation campaigns, they aim to attract local audiences who can then spread the information within their communities.
“We are expecting an acceleration of different Russian actions and even widespread dissemination, so this is a reason to bring this to attention now,” a French military official said.
Potential risks include creating disruption around the Olympic Games or undermining people’s confidence in multiple upcoming elections.
“We are in a period of vulnerability with the European elections, and regarding France, the Olympics,” French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said in a joint news conference with Polish and German officials.
“These are attacks on our democracy,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, adding that the European Union could not allow people’s confidence to be undermined.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.