Twelve key disinformation outlets used to bolster Vladimir Putin have been hit with sanctions in an online crackdown on “false and misleading” reports claimed to be orchestrated by Russian intelligence.
The Foreign Office announced last week that sanctions would be imposed on the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian-based troll factory. Two other alleged disinformation websites, New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review, were also targeted.
The Internet Research Agency has been exposed in the past for paying Russia-based bloggers £500 a month to flood the internet with pro-Putin comments on chat forums, social networks and the comment sections of western publications. Government investigators also claim Russian intelligence supports international news and analysis websites which promote the Kremlin’s view of the Ukraine invasion.
Tom Southern, of the Centre for Information Resilience, a non-profit UK social enterprise which counters disinformation, said the impact of Russian information manipulation campaigns in the Ukraine conflict was being blunted by concerted action by governments and social media companies. “This seems to be a turning point against this fake news,” he said.
The US treasury has imposed sanctions on the three outlets identified by the UK authorities. It has also taken action against at least nine others, five of which have been targeted with sanctions since the Ukraine invasion. One of the websites sanctioned by the US is the Strategic Culture Foundation, which describes itself as a “platform for extensive analysis on Eurasian and global affairs”.
The website has cited Russian claims of a “covert project” to turn Ukraine into a nuclear power. One of its authors also claimed the novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018 was likely to be a British “false flag” operation to “incriminate, demonise and delegitimise Russia”.
The US treasury describes the website as an online journal registered in Russia which is directed by the country’s foreign intelligence service. It states: “It publishes conspiracy theorists, giving them a broader platform to spread disinformation, while trying to obscure the Russian origin of the journal so that readers may be more likely to trust the sourcing.”
The Twitter and Facebook accounts of the website have been suspended since September 2020. The Strategic Culture Foundation did not respond to a request for comment, but says on its website that allegations it was connected with Russian intelligence services were “unsubstantiated” and were “a glimpse into the dystopian future of suppressing dissident voices by governments previously known as democratic”.
American officials have also sanctioned three other outlets claimed to be linked to the Strategic Culture Foundation: the news outlets SouthFront, NewsFront and InfoRos. All three are alleged by US officials to be connected to Russian intelligence.
Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a US group that tracks online disinformation, said it did not appear the tactics previously used to interfere in the American electoral system – with thousands of accounts on numerous platforms – were being widely deployed for the Ukraine conflict.
He said Russia-backed websites were being used to get false information and propaganda more widely disseminated, but were being routinely blocked on social media. “They are trying to get dirty information into the online ecosystem and hope it is picked up by websites and individuals with larger reach,” he explained.
The Russian state-backed news channel RT had its licence to broadcast in the UK revoked by media regulator Ofcom last week. Analysts said the channel’s output was the “tip of the iceberg” in the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign.
The Ukraine government has faced disinformation attacks, including a faked video circulated online last week of president Volodymyr Zelenskiy advising his soldiers to lay down their arms. It was quickly dismissed by Zelenskiy as a “childish provocation”.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, last week said the government was taking action against Russian propaganda, from both the Kremlin’s press office and online disinformation outlets. She said: “We are going further and faster than ever in hitting those closest to Putin – from major oligarchs, to his prime minister, and the propagandists who peddle his lies and disinformation. We are holding them to account for their complicity in Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.”