Supporters react to the 7-year sentence handed to Russian artist Alexandra Skochilenko, accused of spreading disinformation about the Russian army for changing supermarket price tags with messages criticising Russias military offensive in Ukraine, in November 2023. France’s Viginum agency says a “Portal Kombat” group of Russian websites deal in misinformation aimed at countries supporting Ukraine. (Photo by Olga MALTSEVA / AFP)
- A Russian network code-named “Portal Kombat” is targeting countries that support Ukraine with misinformation, a French government agency says.
- Over a 3-month period, the 193 websites in the network posted 150 000 items.
- One future Russian strategy could be to overwhelm fact-checking journalists.
A French government agency charged with defence against foreign online threats on Monday said it had discovered a network of Russian websites designed to spread Kremlin propaganda in the West.
The Viginum agency said the network, which it called “structured and coordinated” was targeting Europe and the United States.
Code-named “Portal Kombat”, the network comprises 193 websites, Viginum reported after investigating between September and December of last year.
The information portals closely resemble each other, it said, and were “spreading pro-Russian content destined for an international audience”, especially in countries backing Ukraine.
France has been delivering arms and aid to Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia in February 2022.
Several of the sites share “pravda” — “truth” in Russian — as their domain name, carrying different extensions according to their languages, such as pravda.en.com for English or pravda.fr.com for French.
Between June 23 and September 19, 2023, the portals published more than 150 000 items between them, typically re-posts from content published by Russian or pro-Russian personalities or Russian media.
Another 180 sites, linked digitally to the pravda network, were spreading similar content in Russian, the French agency discovered.
A French diplomatic source told reporters that Portal Kombat’s main objective was to justify Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Its content had a “strong ideological bias”, the source said, with “narratives that are clearly untrue or misleading”.
Last month, France accused Russia of starting a new disinformation campaign after Moscow claimed that France was funding mercenaries fighting in Ukraine.
The dispute began when the Russian defence ministry said on 17 January that it had carried out a “precision strike” on a temporary base for foreign fighters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, saying the bulk of them were “French mercenaries”.
The claim was later dismissed by French fighters on the ground.
While this and other narratives generated by the Russian sites appeared to have little impact on French social media debates, “some of the content could damage the fundamental interests of the nation”, Viginum said.
There was a chance that the Portal Kombat sites could boost activity in the future, a military source warned.
One future strategy could consist of flooding western networks with doubtful content with the aim of exhausting fact-checking journalists employed by western media, according to experts.