Russia, Iran and China are actively pushing disinformation on social media and American citizens are the casualties. Foreign militaries don’t need to mow down American citizens in broad daylight, they just need to convince us to do it. Foreign millitaries don’t need to release biological weapons on US soil, they just need to convince us to avoid vaccinating against preventable diseases. Despite the spotlight put on “Russian trolls” during the 2016 election, foreign governments continue to successfully wage war on US soil with impunity.
I received a fair amount of attention recently for exposing a group of Russian propagandists spreading disinformation on reddit. The information was subsequently covered by New York Times, NBC News, Washington Post, Newsweek, Buzzfeed News and several other news outlets. I then set out to determine how many other propaganda outlets exist and the extent they’ve influenced social media.
Rather than just dump information (which I do further down), I’ve written a brief synopsis on various disinformation groups included in the data to highlight the research behind labeling them as such.
This group of sites is unique in that it has connections to both the Russian and Iranian governments. Wikipedia really doesn’t mix words in explaining the connections to governments, so I’ll move on to the connections between sites. By scraping the Google Analytics ID from the site, you can see at least ten domains share the same ID. What’s sad is this group primarily targetted Vietnam veterans during the 2016 election, it’s connections are well-established and yet it is still effective propaganda. Interesting side note, veteranstoday.news appears to be a spammer copycat of these state-sponsored sites with no apparent affiliation.
Sputnik & RT Deception
The French government published an extensive document (large PDF warning) on internet disinformation. The flagship sites of both RT and Sputnik are easily connected by Google Analytics IDs; however, the sites they control to influence other countries have no direct connection. An interesting distinction the French report notes is that even though RT and Sputnik present themselves as independent in the same way the BBC is, misinformation is among the chief complaints against even the flagship outlets.
RIA FAN / Internet Research Agency (IRA)
This group is comically dumb, but they’re persistent and creative. Their success stems from tapping into the fears of the worst-informed Americans. I’ve already written an in-depth analysis of their connections, so I won’t rehash. As for the Russian RIA FAN sites not previously discussed, they don’t have any technical connections I can see, but they do heavily share authors, articles and agendas.
Vesti is another Russian state-owned media outlet, which also goes by Russia-24. While vesti.ru is semi-transparent and has 10 associated sites via Google Analytics, they also run several sites targetting former Soviet states that are less transparent. The strategy behind adopting targetted top-level domain names was outlined in the French government’s report.
Politico identified this domain back in 2017. This site is frequently cited by Russian accounts on twitter to skew information about Russia’s war efforts.
According to Wikipedia, Press TV is “affiliated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). IRIB is state-owned but independent of the Iranian government in its management and is the only legal TV and radio broadcaster inside Iran.” The site makes no attempt to conceal its government ties off-site as the information can be found easily by searching the domain; however, the site makes no mention of its affiliation on-site. Furthermore, presstv.com is hosted and registered in America using a registration privacy service and is primarily written in English. The same site with the Iranian top-level domain (presstv.ir) is more transparent from a technical perspective and is used solely to redirect to the American site. presstv.ir is hosted and registered in Iran. From this site (bottom of page), it is possible to see ten total domains that were all previously hosted by the same provider (English News) that are all related. Being hosted by the same provider is not particularly insightful, unless the total number is quite low (anything less than 50 makes me look deeper).
These sites claim to be independent, but have numerous links to government agencies. Expect to see an increase in activity as trade wars escalate.
The table below shows 75,146 reddit submissions, 1,381 tumblr posts and 67 tweets of these domains. I’ve published the full source code and the full output is available as well. These efforts are ongoing and despite efforts from each of these sites, the disinformation continues. I focused on reddit, twitter and tumblr because the data was easiest to access. Facebook and Instagram have significantly restricted their API access, but I do plan to integrate other social media sites as time permits.
Presently, the only motivation for social media sites to address this proactively (beyond, you know, ethics and patriotism) is to avoid bad publicity. Google, twitter, reddit, tumblr, etc all profit from this content regardless of whether they like it or not. One could argue that integrity is valuable enough to invest in maintaining, but evidence suggests self-regulation has not been sufficient two years after state-sponsored disinformation tactics were made known. I do prefer self-regulation to government intervention, so I propose an independent committee funded and staffed by major social media companies to collect and disseminate information and action recommendations. Should that continue to be insufficient or fail to materialize, I believe Congress should regulate these companies accordingly. Regardless of social media company regulation, I feel Congress should act on these sites for their behavior. Foreign governments cannot continue to be allowed to wage information war on us without consequence. Make no mistake, right now, they are waging war on America, lives are being lost and there is no consequence.