Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But it can also be an insidious form of disinformation.
On February 9, a clone account appeared on Twitter that mimics the account of RFE/RL's Russian-language service Radio Svoboda, using nearly identical graphics and a very similar account name. The account name misspells the Russian word "svoboda" as "svoboba."
The profile box of the fake account reads, in Russian, "Free news on Radio Liberty. We change your motherland into our sneakers." It then gives two purported "contact numbers" which are actually the public lines to Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service.
A few days earlier, a similar clone account appeared that mimics the account of the Russian-language service of Voice of America (VOA). That account encourages "those who wish to report on the movements of the armed forces of the Russian Federation" to call a number that turns out to be the reception line for the Federal Security Service (FSB). In this case, the account name is "Colos Ameriki" instead of the Russian for Voice of America, which is Golos Ameriki.
The fakes are off to a slow start, with the fake VOA account collecting only 33 followers so far and the fake Radio Liberty account mustering only three fans. The real VOA Russian Service account has more than 188,000 followers, while the genuine RFE/RL Russian Service account has 108,000.
However, both fake accounts are tweeting a deceptive mixture of plausible tweets (with links back to real material on the sites of the Russian services of RFE/RL and VOA) and implausible ones with links to unprofessional pro-Russian propaganda sites spreading disinformation about the conflict in Ukraine and other issues.
In at least one case, a tweet from the fake RFE/RL account was used in a Russian-media story and passed off as information from RFE/RL's Russian Service.
Such deception is very likely the main purpose of the fake accounts.
Peter Pomerantsev, a former Russian television producer who has written a report on "how the Kremlin weaponizes information," told The New York Times on February 13 that the tactics the Kremlin and its supporters have developed are "not so much an information war, but a war on information."
The management of RFE/RL has complained to Twitter about the unauthorized use of its intellectual property.