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A Russian group spread disinformation about the Princess of Wales, experts say

The swirl of conspiracy theories that surrounded Catherine, Princess of Wales, before she announced her cancer diagnosis last week probably didn’t need any help from a foreign state. But researchers in Britain said Wednesday that a notorious Russian disinformation operation helped throw matters into turmoil.

Martin Innes, a digital disinformation expert at Cardiff University in Wales, said he and his colleagues had tracked 45 social media accounts that posted false claims about Catherine on a Kremlin-linked disinformation network that previously published divisive stories about about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and about France’s support for Ukraine.

As in these cases, Professor Innes said the influence campaign appears designed to stoke divisions, deepen the sense of chaos in society and undermine trust in institutions – in this case the British royal family and the news media.

“It triggers an emotional response,” he said. “The story has already been framed in conspiracy terms so you can target these people. And people who support the royal family are getting angry.”

The motive, he said, was likely both commercial and political. Social media traffic about Catherine has skyrocketed in the past three months as the lack of information about her condition created a void that an online army filled with rumors and speculation. For the Russian network, distributing these posts through their accounts would allow them to increase their own traffic statistics and follower counts.

It is not clear who may have hired the disinformation network to target Catherine, but it has a track record of campaigning to undermine countries and people at odds with the Kremlin. Britain’s strong support for Ukraine and London’s longstanding hostility to Moscow would make it a tempting target for the Russians.

The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper, reported On Sunday, British officials said they were concerned that Russia, China and Iran were stoking disinformation about Catherine to destabilize the country.

When asked about the reports in Parliament on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden did not name the countries but said it was “a reminder to all of us that it is important for us to ensure we are dealing with valid and trustworthy information.” “And are correspondingly skeptical about many online sources.”

In 2020, a British parliamentary committee concluded that Russia had waged a lengthy, sophisticated campaign to undermine British democracy – using tactics ranging from disinformation and election interference to funneling dirty money and employing members of the House of Lords were enough. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the conclusions as “Russophobia.”

Kensington Palace, where Catherine and her husband, Prince William, have their offices, declined to comment on Russia’s role in the recent rumors. The palace has appealed to the news media and public to give Catherine privacy after she announced in a video last Friday that she had cancer.

Professor Innes, the leads a research program Investigating the causes and consequences of digital disinformation, he said his team noticed a mysterious spike in a certain type of social media posts on March 19, a day after a video surfaced of Catherine and William visiting a grocery store in the near her home in Windsor.

A widely repeated post on X included an image from the video in which Catherine’s face was significantly changed. It asked: “Why do these major media outlets want us to believe that it’s Kate and William?” But as we can see, it’s not Kate or William. …”

When tracing the 45 accounts that reused this post, Professor Innes said researchers found that they all came from a single master account, which bore the name Master Firs. It bore the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation operation known in the industry as doppelgangerhe said.

Since 2017, Doppelganger has been linked to the creation of fake websites posing as real news organizations in Europe and the United States. Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions against two Russians and their companies for engaging in cyber influence operations. They are believed to be part of the doppelganger network.

Catherine isn’t the only member of the royal family who has become the subject of an online feeding frenzy in Russia. On the same day as the numerous posts about the video, a false report about the death of King Charles III began on Telegram, a popular social network in Russia. to circulate.

These reports were later picked up by Russian media, forcing British embassies in Moscow and Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, to reject them as “fake news.” Like Catherine, Charles, 75, is being treated for cancer but continues to receive visitors privately and plans to attend church services at Easter.

Beyond Russian involvement, rumors and whispers about Catherine’s health circulated in many parts of the internet, including in reports sympathetic to William’s brother, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan. With online madness so widespread, the influence of any state actor could be muted.

“It is very difficult to isolate just one piece,” said Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of the EU DisinfoLab, a research organization in Brussels that was involved Identifying the Russia-based disinformation group in 2022 and gave him the name Doppelganger. “The question is what is being spun by the media, online influencers or inauthentic sources. Everything is connected.”

Such campaigns are also particularly difficult to measure, he said, because social media companies like

Some disinformation companies are also not very selective about how they distribute content online, Alaphilippe said. “You may see bots pushing a Russian narrative on Monday,” he said. “On Tuesday they can do online gaming. On Wednesday they can run crypto scam campaigns.”

While awareness of Russian disinformation campaigns has increased since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the scale of internet trickery and the spread of lies has not abated.

Through bots, online trolls and disinformation peddlers, Russia-linked groups are using news events to sow confusion and discord. Over the past two years, Ukraine has been at the center of their efforts as President Vladimir V. Putin seeks to undermine the West’s resolve to continue supporting the war.

A French government minister recently blamed Russia Artificially heightened concerns about a bed bug scare in Paris last year. Another false claim from this media Watchdog groups said Russia stressed that the European Union would allow this powdered insects added to food.

Spreading rumors about Catherine is more of a traditional influence operation, but the Russians have refined their tactics as governments and independent researchers become more sophisticated in exposing her activities.

Fake news sites have popped up in the United States and Europe advance Russian propaganda and potentially impact the 2024 election. In YouTube and TikTok videos, people have posed as Ukrainian doctors and film producers to tell false stories that benefit Russia’s interests.

“Whether they spread it for profit or for political reasons, these types of actors tend to pounce on anything that is interesting and controversial,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford . “No different than some news media outlets,” he added, although their motives may be different.

“When it is politically motivated,” said Professor Nielsen, “it is rarely about persuasion, but about attempts to undermine people’s trust in the media environment.”

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