The websites of several prominent Western news outlets have been targeted by a pro-Russian influence operation that uses the websites' comment sections to distort public opinion, research conducted in Britain shows.
The study by Cardiff University's Crime and Security Research Institute found pro-Russian comments often receive an unusually high number of favorable responses. These comments in turn are fed back to Russian-language media outlets and used as the basis for stories to suggest Western public approval of Kremlin policies or discontent with Western governments or institutions.
The operation, which the researchers said was ongoing, has targeted 32 media outlets in 16 countries, including The Washington Post and Fox News in the United States, and the Daily Mail, Daily Express, and The Times in Britain.
The Cardiff team said it began examining the comments in April but the operation was just the latest part of a long-running campaign to support Russia's narrative about the end of liberal democracy and the failure of NATO.
Almost 250 stories were found to contain pro-Kremlin or anti-Western sentiments in the comments sections about matters of relevance to Russia since April.
Some articles suggested extensive support in the West for Russia, President Vladimir Putin, or a particular policy. The articles also were published in European countries, particularly Bulgaria, and were further amplified on social-media platforms, including Telegram.
The research found that the operation has recently attempted to exploit the U.S. and British withdrawal from Afghanistan, the BBC reported.
Other news websites targeted include the Le Figaro in France, Der Spiegel and Die Welt in Germany, and Italy's La Stampa, the BBC said.
The research highlights that while social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have put more resources into detecting influence campaigns, traditional mainstream sites have fewer security measures to stop people creating multiple, false identities, the director of the Crime and Security Research Institute told the BBC.
The United States has blamed Russian for using social media to interfere in the 2016 and the 2020 U.S. presidential elections and says Russian hackers are to blame for a series of recent cyberattacks. Russia has consistently denied being involved in misinformation operations and cyberattacks.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the research highlighted the threat to democracy from Russian state-backed misinformation on the Internet.
"The U.K. is working closely with international allies to stand up to the Kremlin trolls peddling lies," Raab said.