France uncovers vast network of Russian disinformation sites

France uncovers vast network of Russian disinformation sites

At the end of November 2023, an X account purporting to be that of a journalist named Jules Vincent published a long written and audio message on the social media platform accusing Ukraine of selling land to the son of billionaire George Soros for the burial of toxic waste. In reality, Vincent doesn’t seem to exist, speaks with an unidentified accent and falsely claims to belong to an association of freelance journalists. But it doesn’t matter, because in the days that followed, his message was picked up by a litany of sites and actors identified as regularly sharing Russian disinformation and conspiracy theories.

One of these sites is a French-language publication, Pravda-fr.com, which is now the subject of an allegation by the French authorities. In a report published on Monday, February 12, Viginum, the prime minister’s department for surveillance and protection against foreign digital interference, uncovers a network dubbed “Portal Kombat” by investigators, made up of 193 fake news sites targeting both the Ukrainian population and European countries, including France, Germany and Poland. The existence of this network was to be discussed on Monday afternoon in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, just outside Paris, during a meeting between the foreign affairs ministers of the three countries.

The service provider, whose identity is currently being verified, is said to be based in Russia. “Portal Kombat is the small tip of an iceberg of disinformation, linked to the expansion of digital sites and the explosion of social media,” said an official French source.

Denigrating Ukraine and its leaders

Viginum has identified several groups of sites, the vast majority of which have the same design and are entirely dedicated to republishing and amplifying pro-Russian propaganda or official Russian news channels. The first group, known as the “Pravda ecosystem,” includes the Pravda-fr fake news media, as well as its British, German and Spanish counterparts, all of which are designed to target European populations and were created in mid-2023.

These sites systematically reproduce information and articles from official media such as the TASS agency and RT, but they also intensively amplify messages from other sites and Telegram channels widely known as conduits for pro-Russian narratives on a daily basis. “The articles disseminated serve mainly to cover the conflict in Ukraine, on the one hand positively presenting the Russian invasion to Western populations and, on the other, denigrating Ukraine and its leaders, regularly presented as ‘corrupt,’ ‘Nazis’ or ‘incompetent,'” reads Viginum’s report.

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