Spate of Mock News Sites With Russian Ties Pop Up in U.S.

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Into the depleted field of journalism in America, a handful of websites have appeared in recent weeks with names suggesting a focus on news close to home: D.C. Weekly, the New York News Daily, the Chicago Chronicle and a newer sister publication, the Miami Chronicle.

In fact, they are not local news organizations at all. They are Russian creations, researchers and government officials say, meant to mimic actual news organizations to push Kremlin propaganda by interspersing it among an at-times odd mix of stories about crime, politics and culture.

While Russia has long sought ways to influence public discourse in the United States, the fake news organizations — at least five, so far — represent a technological leap in its efforts to find new platforms to dupe unsuspecting American readers. The sites, the researchers and officials said, could well be the foundations of an online network primed to surface disinformation ahead of the American presidential election in November.

Patrick Warren, a co-director at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, which has exposed furtive Russian disinformation efforts, said advances in artificial intelligence and other digital tools had “made this even easier to do and to make the content that they do even more targeted.”

The Miami Chronicle’s website first appeared on Feb. 26. Its tagline falsely claims to have delivered “the Florida News since 1937.”

Amid some true reports, the site published a story last week about a “leaked audio recording” of Victoria Nuland, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, discussing a shift in American support for Russia’s beleaguered opposition after the death of the Russian dissident Aleksei A. Navalny. The recording is a crude fake, according to administration officials who would speak only anonymously to discuss intelligence matters.

The campaign, the experts and officials say, appears to involve remnants of the media empire once controlled by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a former associate of President Vladimir V. Putin whose troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, interfered in the 2016 presidential election between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Prigozhin died in a plane crash outside Moscow in August after leading a brief military uprising against Russia’s military, but the continuation of his operations underscores the importance the Kremlin places on its information battles around the world. It is not clear who exactly has taken the helm.

“Putin would be a complete and utter idiot to let the network fall apart,” said Darren Linvill, Mr. Warren’s partner at Clemson. “He needs the Prigozhin network more than ever before.”

The researchers at Clemson disclosed the Russian connections behind the D.C. Weekly website in a report in December. After their disclosure, Russian narratives began appearing on another site that had been created in October, Clear Story News. Since then, new outlets have appeared.

The websites of the Chicago Chronicle and the New York News Daily, whose name clearly is meant to evoke the city’s storied Daily News tabloid, were both created on Jan. 18, according to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which monitors domains.

All the outlets use the same WordPress software to build the sites and, as a result, have similar designs.

The outlets have logos and names that evoke a bygone era of American journalism, an effort to create a semblance of authenticity. A Chicago Chronicle did operate from 1895 to 1907 before folding for a reason that would be all too familiar to struggling newspapers today: It was not profitable.

They also update regularly with major breaking news, creating at first glance the impression of topicality. An article about the Supreme Court’s ruling about Mr. Trump’s eligibility to remain on the primary ballot in Colorado appeared on the Miami Chronicle’s site within hours of the decision.

In other ways, the websites are poorly constructed, even incomplete in parts. The “about” page for the Miami Chronicle, for example, is filled with Lorem ipsum, the Latin-based dummy text. Some of images on the site have file names from the original Russian. (None of the sites post working contact information.)

The purpose is not to fool a discerning reader into diving deeper into the website, let alone subscribing, Mr. Linvill said. The goal instead is to lend an aura of credibility to posts on social media spreading the disinformation.

The effort follows a pattern the Kremlin has used before: laundering claims that first appear online through lesser news organizations. Those reports spread again online and appear in still more news organizations, including Russia’s state news agencies and television networks.

“The page is just there to look realistic enough to fool a casual reader into thinking they’re reading a genuine, U.S.-branded article,” Mr. Linvill said.

D.C. Weekly published a number of Kremlin narratives beginning in August, according to Clemson’s study. One included a false claim that the wife of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, bought more than $1.1 million worth of jewelry at the Cartier store in New York during his visit to the United Nations in September.

The site claims to have a staff of 17 journalists, but they seem to have been fabricated. The biography of that story’s author, called Jessica Devlin, used as a profile picture a photograph of Judy Batalion, the author of a best-selling book about Jewish women who fought the Nazis. Ms. Batalion said she had never heard of the site or the author until fact checkers reached out to her.

Other articles that appear on the sites appear to have been lifted from real news organizations, including Reuters and Fox News, or from Russian state media’s English-language news agencies, like RT. Some stories have carelessly included instructions or responses from one of OpenAI’s chatbots, Mr. Linvill and Mr. Warren wrote in the study.

The New York News Daily published a story recently about supposed American plans to interfere in Russia’s election this month, whose winner, Mr. Putin, is a foregone conclusion. It was spread on social media by people who have long had links with the Kremlin’s state media apparatus.

Another article last week appeared to come from a fictional character on X. The New York News Daily posted an article about what purported to be a thread announcing a $115 million Hollywood blockbuster about Mr. Zelensky. The user on X was called Brian Wilson and was described as an associate producer at Paramount Pictures.

The account has posted on X only 85 times, the vast majority of them reposts about movies over two days in February. A week later, the user suddenly announced a deal to produce a biopic of Mr. Zelensky — “The Price of Victory” — in a series of posts. Those were followed last week by two more that featured actual videos of the actors Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren manipulated to appear to be wishing him success with the film.

The videos appear to have originated with Cameo, the celebrity greeting app, which figured in an earlier Russian campaign that Microsoft disclosed in December.

A spokeswoman for Paramount Pictures said no one named Brian Wilson worked at the studio. A spokesman for Cameo said on Monday that the company was not aware of the videos but added, “As a general rule, when posts misusing Cameo-sourced content are brought to our attention, we request their removal from the platform at issue.” Later that day, the two videos were blocked on the X account for violating intellectual property rights. X later suspended the account.

Posts about the film spread extensively on Telegram. Many users cited the actual New York Daily News as the source and said it underscored an abuse of Western financial assistance in Ukraine’s war against Russia. The narrative was also amplified by outlets previously linked to Russian intelligence agencies, including NewsFront and Politnavigator, said Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center.

The articles typically get hundreds of posts on a variety of platforms, including X, Facebook and Telegram, as well as Reddit, Gab and Truth Social, though it is difficult to measure the exact reach. Taken together, they could in theory reach thousands of readers, even millions.

“This is absolutely a prelude to the kind of interference we will see in the election cycle,” Mr. Linvill said. “It’s cheap, highly targeted and obviously effective.”

Jeanne Noonan DelMundo contributed reporting.

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