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Kremlin botnet launches wave of disinformation claiming Havana Syndrome doesn't exist

The Doppelgänger bot network has begun spreading Moscow’s response to The Insider's joint investigation with 60 Minutes and Der Spiegel into Havana Syndrome. According to analysis by the Bot Blocker project, which closely tracks Doppelgänger’s online disinformation efforts, the current campaign has targeted German audiences.

The joint investigation in question, which was published on Mar. 31 of this year, uncovered new evidence suggesting that heretofore unexplained “anomalous health incidents” (AHIs) reported by U.S. government officials and their families, also known as Havana Syndrome, may have their origin in the use of directed energy weapons wielded by members of GRU Unit 29155, a notorious assassination and sabotage squad attached to Russia’s military intelligence service.

According to Bot Blocker, two articles were spread en masse via X (formerly Twitter). The first was sent out on April 3 — mere days after the investigation was published. Such a short time frame between the event and Doppelgänger’s reaction is extremely rare and indicates the importance of the issue for the disinformation network, the project’s analysts note.

An article on wanderfalke.net (which Meta has included on a list of sites under the control of the Doppelgänger network) makes the claim that “even the U.S. doesn’t blame Russia” for the attacks. At the same time, however, the piece also says that it is the U.S. that is interested in disseminating the investigation that presents evidence of Russian involvement in the Havana Syndrome phenomenon. According to the disinformation article:

“The U.S. itself does not directly accuse Russia or even create an international scandal. But then why is this topic intensively used in the media — especially in European media? Every 2-3 years the topic of Russian secret weapons against Americans and Europeans appears in various sources, but Moscow is never directly accused. Why are such maneuvers necessary? This information is favorable to Washington for one reason only: to justify the continuation of its anti-Russian policy. The last time the microwave-burned brains appeared in the mirror was in 2021 — at the height of discussions about Nord Stream-2. Now it's time to justify supporting Ukraine to the victorious (?) end. And so the brain-burning front-page rays are back in action. The best way to support military sentiment is to intimidate the population. And this is the tactic the U.S. uses against Europe every time.”

The second piece, sent out on Twitter on May 5, was a video by German blogger Uli Gellermann. In the clip, Gellermann mocks the investigation, but he does so without offering any counter arguments — be they fake, absurd, or even thinly disguised as truth. Since 2015, Gellerman has been running the blog Rationalgalerie, where he actively criticizes NATO, defends Vladimir Putin, and promotes various conspiracy theories. Notably, the blogger denied the danger of the coronavirus. Russian propaganda outlets refer to Gellermann as a “German journalist” in videos they have produced in order to make claims such as “It's Time to Bury NATO” and “Russia is Invincible.” At times, Gellermann’s quotes are even reported as policy positions representing the whole of Germany. Unsurprisingly, the blogger is an active collaborator with Sputnik News (part of the Rossiya Segodnya news agency, which is wholly owned and operated by the Russian government).

Despite his reach in the Kremlin-backed information space, Gellerman's YouTube channel attracts a minimal following, with videos typically gaining between 200 and 3000 views. However, the fact that Gellermann is a marginal voice in his own country has not prevented Doppelgänger from using his work to communicate the Kremlin's desired narratives. The network has shared links to at least one Gellermann video accompanied with text such as: “It is so obvious that they are trying to blame Russia for all the problems,” and “I feel that we are being pushed to war.”

What points to Doppelgänger

The method of dissemination, along with the system of redirects to the final article via “spacer” websites, indicate that the dissemination of the articles in question is the work of the Kremlin’s network of bots. Doppelgänger bots usually build their publications on Twitter in the following way: first, an accompanying phrase + a link to a “spacer” website + a screenshot of the final article with a believable design.

The screenshot is included because otherwise the tweet will show a preview of the “spacer” site, and even the most inattentive user will notice the deception.

A video demonstrating the redirect mechanism used by Doppelgänger can be found below.

As with other disinformation campaigns, 1efay0[.]cfd was again used as a “spacer” website. Redirects to clones of Western media outlets Der Spiegel and Fox News — the counterfeit websites being spiegel[.]ltd and fox-news[.]in — were previously made through the “spacer.” Meta has included these websites on the list of fake media used by the Doppelgänger network (source for Der Spiegel, source for Fox News), which points to the same organization being behind the most recent disinfo, as per Bot Blocker.

Who is behind Doppelgänger?

According to a 2022 report by Facebook parent company Meta Platforms, such spam attacks have been carried out by the Russian IT companies National Technologies and Social Design Agency (Агентство Социального Проектирования), both of which which fall under EU sanctions. The ultimate owner of National Technologies is Rostec — Russia’s state-owned defense conglomerate, which is 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 disinformation campaign. The group of offenders included the aforementioned National Technologies and Social Design Agency, as well as several officers of the GRU’s Unit 54777.

What has the Doppelgänger network spread previously?

Doppelgänger operates on a permanent basis, with fixed hours of operation and two days off per week, notes the Bot Blocker project. The majority of its work is carried out in “moderate” mode, as in the Havana Syndrome case, but it sometimes bursts with frantic activity, as in the case of a disinfo campaign regarding the Mar. 22 terrorist attack on Crocus City Hall outside of Moscow.

Following that attack, the network started circulating pseudo-journalistic articles purporting to detail those responsible for the terrorist attack. These pieces “informed” readers that the U.S., the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), Ukraine, and the so-called “collective West” at large were to blame — not ISIS or its regional branch, ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province), which publicly claimed responsibility for killing 145 Russian concertgoers.

Another notable campaign occurred in November 2023, when the bots circulated photos of buildings in France adorned with Stars of David — symbols painted on Jewish homes as a warning of potential pogroms. Citing data from the Bot Blocker project, The Insider demonstrated that the same accounts were responsible for circulating pro-Russian publications, indicating the involvement of an identical bot network in the distribution of these photos.

In addition to its anti-Ukrainian posts, the network has also spread other anti-Semitic content. 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 — one reminiscent of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which 17 people, including 11 members of the Israeli national team, were killed.

After Vladimir Putin’s “re-election” on March 18, Doppelgänger launched an information campaign that was likely intended to create an aura of legitimacy around the Russian presidential election. A report by the independent publication Agentstvo (lit “The Agency”) citing Bot Blocker detailed the information campaign. Written in English, French, German, and Ukrainian, the tweets involved three theories about the election. The first was that Russia had held a competitive process, and that the overwhelming majority of Russians actually support Vladimir Putin in line with Russia’s purported long democratic tradition. The other two were related to Ukraine: the first claimed that the Ukrainian authorities had made a mistake by canceling their own elections, and the second argued that Ukraine should not “cancel” everything Russian — including Russian culture.

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