Pro-Russian Trolls Target Reader Comments on Western News Websites: UK Study

By Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
September 6, 2021 Updated: September 6, 2021

Pro-Kremlin trolls have been systematically manipulating the comment sections of Western news websites to spread propaganda and disinformation, a group of UK researchers has found.

Researchers from Cardiff University say they have found evidence that 32 prominent media outlets across 16 countries have been targeted, including the UK’s Daily Mail, Daily Express, and The Times of London, America’s Fox News and The Washington Post, French newspaper Le Figaro, Germany’s Der Spiegel and Die Welt, and Italy’s La Stampa.

The study was carried out by the Open Source Communications Analytics Research (Oscar) programme at Cardiff University, which is partly funded by Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “This report highlights the threat to our democracy of Russian state-backed misinformation on the Internet. The UK is working closely with international allies to stand up to the Kremlin trolls peddling lies.”

The researchers identified 242 news stories under which provocative pro-Russian or anti-Western statements were posted. These comments were then fed back to Russian-language media outlets and used as the basis of stories on Western public opinion.

The Russian-language reports, using headlines such as “Daily Mail readers say…” and “Readers of Der Spiegel think…,” suggest there is extensive support among Western citizens for Russia or President Vladimir Putin. These stories were spread to audiences in Central and Eastern Europe, most prominently in Bulgaria.

These fake readers’ comments have also been picked up by “fringe media” and websites with track records of spreading so-called disinformation, some of which have been linked by Western security services to Russian intelligence agencies.

Professor Martin Innes, leader of the research team, said the websites of traditional media outlets are more susceptible to manipulation than social media platforms.

“As mainstream social media platforms have become more alert to the risks of foreign state influence operations, so disinformation actors and propagandists have been seeking new vulnerabilities in the media ecosystem to exploit,” Innes said.

He said many Western media websites have no security measures in place to prevent, deter, or detect such manipulative activity, and trolls have been able to easily switch between personas and identities.

One suspected disinformation account had 69 location changes and 549 changes of name since its creation in June last year, the study found.

On some commenting platforms that allow other users to vote on posts, researchers observed that pro-Kremlin comments repeatedly received an unusually high number of “up-votes” compared with other messages.

Innes said it is “vital” that media companies running participatory websites are more transparent about how they are tackling disinformation and more proactive in preventing it.

PA contributed to this report.