Culture

A Russian disinformation campaign went unnoticed on Facebook and Reddit for years

Researchers claim that the operations targeted all kinds of websites and produced a lengthy list of "content" in at least seven languages between 2014 and 2020.

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Graphika researchers have highlighted a lengthy and rather detailed Russian disinformation operation dubbed the "Secondary Infektion." According to the Graphika report, the campaign ran for as long as six years and spanned over Europe and North America from 2014 to 2020.

Researchers state that they don't have knowledge of the exact entity behind the Secondary Infektion but have pointed to a plethora of content, languages, and websites where the Russian campaign, they say, dug its teeth.

Here are the key highlights — According to Graphika, the campaign began on January 1, 2014. It goes on through 2020 and boasts at least 2,500 pieces of content in seven languages. The reach of this content, according to Graphika, spans over 300 websites. It's not just the more innocuous-sounding websites like LiveJournal but also Reddit, Medium, and certain community segments of BuzzFeed's website.

The researchers claim that the bulk of the misinformation was carried out through burner accounts. Single-use burners proved to be especially effective as they could be abandoned after single posts while still retaining the crux of the campaign's mission. Researchers also claim that the campaign "forged documents" to create contentions and strife between Western countries, with a heavy emphasis on antagonizing Ukraine. None of this looks good for Russia which has been on the receiving end of multiple accusations of misinformation, discord-sowing online strategies, and at times paranoid and over-stated suspicion from the United States.

From foreign policy to Kremlin critics — The topics that Graphika highlighted as the campaign's main subject matter included:

  • Positing Ukraine as a volatile state.
  • Support signaled for United States and NATO interventions in other states.
  • Critical sentiment toward Islam and immigrants.
  • Election politics and campaigning.
  • Criticism of Turkey.
  • Criticism of inter-European tension.
  • Russia and its sports controversies.
  • Support for Russia.

The good news — Researchers claim that in spite of executing multiple content campaigns on various websites, Secondary Infektion did not reach vast audiences. "If Secondary Infektion was aiming at viral impact," Graphika researchers stated, "it failed."

In particular, people's personal suspicions of bots worked against the operation. "Repeatedly in the course of this research, Graphika came across comments below Secondary Infektion stories that questioned or ridiculed them, or called them out as 'Russian trolls,'" researchers wrote. "It is therefore especially important to maintain a sense of perspective when crafting responses to such online operations." Pretty good advice, Russian bots or not.