Fake news sites spread pro-Russian disinformation

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — A boy dies in a cycling accident in Berlin after street lights were turned off at night, as Germany faces an energy crunch following the shutdown of Russian gas supplies.
At first glance, the story appears to be a genuine article from the country’s top tabloid, Bild, and it was shared on Facebook.

But investigations, including by AFP, found it was disinformation, part of a major campaign in which leading news sites — mainly in Germany but also other European countries — were imitated to spread pro-Moscow messages.

A series of other false articles have appeared in Germany, including one about a school in the northern city of Bremen being hit by an explosion as it sought to save gas, which appeared on a fake Der Spiegel website.

Another purported to be about truck drivers blocking roads to protest EU policies on an imitated site of news outlet T-Online.

In addition, a fake story appeared on an imitated Bild web page, claiming Ukrainian refugees set a house on fire after trying to burn a Russian flag.

German media first reported on the fake sites, before other researchers began to investigate.

Impersonated media

In late September, Facebook’s parent company Meta took down what it called the “sprawling network” behind the campaign, which it said originated in Russia and focused primarily on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

More than 60 sites impersonated legitimate news organizations, including in Britain, France, Italy and Ukraine, Meta said. According to researchers, among the impersonated media were Britain’s Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel and Italy’s ANSA news agency.

EU DisinfoLab — a non -government organization that also investigated the campaign — said the network’s aims were “depicting Ukraine as a failed, corrupt and Nazi state” as well as “promoting Kremlin narratives on the Ukraine war.”

The networking, operating since May, was also intended to spread fear among Europeans “about how sanctions against Russia will ruin their lives,” the group, with whom AFP cooperated in its investigation, said.

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