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France reveals another Russian propaganda network spreading Kremlin fakes to Western audiences

Image source: True Story Project

French government agency Viginum has identified a new network of websites spreading Kremlin propaganda. Some of these sites were previously promoted by another similar network — Doppelgänger (RRN), which is backed by several entities including Rostec and possibly the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence agency). Viginum was set up in 2021 to detect digital interference from foreign entities aimed at influencing public opinion.

According to Viginum, the new network, called Portal Kombat, consists of at least 193 sites. Initially, the network reported news from Russia and Ukraine — that changed the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, when it began targeting occupied Ukrainian territories, and then eventually spread to several Western countries that support Ukraine and its people. The network's sites do not produce original content, but massively republish publications from three main sources: Russian or pro-Russian social media accounts, Russian news agencies, and official websites of local institutions. Fabricated news stories are also published.

The network’s goal is to cover the Russian invasion by presenting the so-called “special military operation” in a positive light and denigrating Ukraine and its leaders. The sites publish materials in various languages and use domains from a number of Western countries, such as:

  • pravda-fr[.]com (France);
  • pravda-de[.]com (Germany, Austria and Switzerland);
  • pravda-pl[.]com (Poland);
  • pravda-es[.]com (Spain);
  • pravda-en[.]com (UK and U.S.).

Between June 23 and September 19 last year, more than 150,000 articles were published on these sites. Besides a common narrative, the sites have identical technical characteristics: a common IP address hosted on a server in Russia, the same HTML architecture, graphic layout and sections, and external links.

The Insider previously reported on the Doppelgänger bot network, which spread anti-Semitic content aside from its anti-Ukrainian publications. Masquerading under the guise of expressing “deep concern,” hundreds of bots shared a video allegedly from the Turkish nationalist group Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar). In the video, terrorists threatened to replicate an attack on Jews at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, reminiscent of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics where 17 people, including 11 members of the Israeli national team, were killed.

Tens of thousands of accounts on X (formerly Twitter), as well as other social networks, posted links to fake websites of well-known Western media outlets. The same websites published cards with “quotes from great people” featuring images of Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey, Cristiano Ronaldo and other celebrities criticizing the war in Ukraine and the West’s continuing financial support for Kyiv.

In December 2022, Meta revealed that Structura National Technologies, an IT firm, and Social Design Agency (Агентство Социального Проектирования), a marketing and political consulting firm, both subject to European sanctions, were identified as the culprits behind the Russian spam attack.

The ultimate owner of National Technologies is Rostec — Russia’s state-owned defense conglomerate headed by former KGB agent Sergey Chemezov, a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

The bots also promoted the EuroBRICS website, which has proven links to the GRU's Special Service Center (Military Unit 54777). In July 2023, the European Union imposed sanctions against those involved in the misinformation campaign, which included the above-mentioned National Technologies, Social Design Agency, as well as several officers from GRU Unit 54777.

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