Weaponizing State-Run Media: Sputnik Employees on Facebook

Credit: Sputnik

The 2020 presidential campaign will reignite the discussion of election interference through fake news and disinformation

On January 17th Facebook announced the removal of multiple accounts, groups and Pages linked to “inauthentic behavior” or fake news and misinformation originating in Russia and Ukraine. At this point, it’s no surprise foreign actors are using social media to mislead, deceive and influence people through social media platforms. In the case of the latest round of removals, the individuals behind the activities were found to have coordinated with one another through fake accounts to misrepresent themselves and their affiliations — not too out of the ordinary for such a campaign. However, this latest batch revealed a new trend.

Facebook found the Pages and accounts were linked to employees of Sputnik — a news agency operated by the Russian government-owned news division Rossiya Segodnya — and that they were frequently posting content focused on anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements and anti-corruption themes. The Facebook Page administrators and account owners “primarily represented themselves as independent news Pages or general interest Pages on topics like weather, travel, sports, economics, or politicians in Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan.”

The accounts and Facebook Pages not only posted content; they also ran paid ads and promoted events:

  • Facebook noted that around $135,000 was spent on advertising, with the first ad appearing in October 2013 and the most recent running in January 2019.
  • Around 190 events were hosted by these Pages, going back to August 2015 and as recently as January 2019 — no word, however, on if these events ever took place.
  • An estimated 790,000 Facebook accounts followed one or more of the removed Facebook Pages.
  • Teams at Facebook are still reviewing much of the content.

Why It Matters

State-run media functions as an arm of the government, especially in autocratic countries like Russia. If media outlets like Sputnik and their employees are being deployed to carry out fake news and misinformation campaigns, then it’s increasingly clear bad actors are being guided by the government, and that these media channels are coordinating information warfare, as opposed to acting as subtle assets of soft power influence.

Clyde Insights

As discussed on this blog before, interfering in the affairs of other states is nothing new. Direct interference and exerting soft power influence have existed for as long as nations have engaged in diplomacy. However, modern practices have shifted the use of information warfare.

While it will continue to be the aim of governments to exert influence, it has also long been the purpose of media to educate and inform. As governments begin to wield their owned-media arms more as weapons, these lines blur dramatically.

Beyond that, this trend will place greater strain on tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to establish processes to curtail the use of their platforms for misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Facebook attempted to address a portion of this problem with new verification policies for running political ads in countries like the U.S., U.K. and Brazil.

However, reducing the much more widespread and influential component of these efforts — the content delivered to millions in the form of memes, fake news “articles” and manipulatively-edited videos — would require a level of censorship that Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to pursue absent regulatory and legislative pressure.

As the days tick down to the 2020 election in the U.S., misinformation efforts from state actors like Russia and China, whether through state-run media platforms or state-sanctioned hacking outfits, will be a constant feature in the campaign, and broader media narrative.