News Brief

Russian cyber criminals offer fake news campaigns to companies worldwide

A new report underlines how we have to be vigilant about what we find on the internet as not only political misinformation runs rampant, but so does corporate disinformation.

As governments across the world battle massive disinformation campaigns on social media and elsewhere, cyber criminals seem to have discovered that there’s quite a lot of money to be made in the corporate world as well.

It wouldn’t be the first time corporations designed disinformation campaigns to discredit critics — one recent example includes Monsanto’s elaborate smear campaign against U.S. journalist Carey Gillam, who reported concerns about research which linked the company’s herbicides to human and environmental health problems. But according to researchers, it is believed to be the first instance where online criminals have been discovered to be offering commercial disinformation services on the dark web to corporations as well.

Recorded Future’s Insikt Group research team found that Russian-speaking groups are advertising their disinformation campaigns services across Eastern Europe — including undertaking elaborate social media campaigns. According to the report, the criminals even claim to be able to publish disinformation in media outlets such as the Financial Times and Buzzfeed.

Roman Sannikov, Director of Analyst Services at Recorded Future, told me the study was conducted to demonstrate the significant threat disinformation campaigns can have on the private sector. He said that the impact should not be underestimated. “Competitors, or others who want to harm or enhance the reputation of a company or entity, can do so relatively easily, quickly, and for a minimal investment,” said Sannikov.

Here’s how Recorded Future went about testing the criminals’ ability to spread disinformation in Western countries: they hired two “service providers” to spread both positive propaganda and negative disinformation about a fictional company they had created for the purposes of the research.

“Doctor Zhivago was politely formal, as well as informative, even providing examples showing publications in some very reputable Russian-language media sources,” says the report about one of the people hired for the campaign. Doctor Zhivago promised he would be able to destroy someone’s reputation permanently — an individual or a company — by spreading false information about alleged business misconduct to criminal activity.

Doctor Zhivago seems to have come through. As the research is still ongoing, Sannikov couldn’t disclose the names of the media outlets where the harmful content was published, but he could tell me that there were four media entities in the UK who published it. One of them has been in existence for over one hundred years.

The report reads like a crime novel, and reminds me of the “Reply:All” podcast episode “Snapchat Thief.”

According to the report, the “service providers” used “an organic, layered approach.” They used “aged accounts” (fake social media accounts that have existed for a while) to share negative articles about the fictitious company through social media. Then a new batch of social media accounts friended people in the countries where the company supposedly operates and shared the same fake news.

Both campaigns were a “success” and cost $6,050 to conduct — paying for the criminals’ services, including having fake news placed in newspapers.

“Companies, entities, or individuals have to be very vigilant of any media or social media narrative that involves them,” said Sannikov.