Russian group spreads disinformation about Kate Middleton, experts say

The whirlwind of conspiracy theories that engulfed Catherine, Princess of Wales, before she revealed her cancer diagnosis last week probably didn't need help from a foreign state. But some British researchers said Wednesday that a known Russian disinformation operation had helped mix things up.

Martin Innes, a digital disinformation expert at Cardiff University in Wales, said he and his colleagues traced 45 social media accounts that posted false claims about Catherine to a Kremlin-linked disinformation network, which has previously spread controversial stories about the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr. Zelenskyj, as well as on France's support for Ukraine.

As in those cases, Professor Innes said, the influence campaign appeared calculated to inflame divisions, deepen a sense of chaos in society and erode trust in institutions – in this case, the British royal family and the media.

“It causes an emotional reaction,” he said. “The story was already framed in terms of conspiracy, so you can appeal to those people. And people who support the royal family get angry.”

The reason, he said, was probably commercial as well as political. Social media traffic on Catherine has skyrocketed over the past three months, as a dearth of information about her condition created a void that an online army filled with rumors and speculation. For the Russian network, amplifying these posts across its accounts would allow it to increase its traffic statistics and follower count.

It is unclear who may have hired the disinformation network to go after Catherine, but it has long experience of campaigning to weaken countries and people at odds with the Kremlin. Britain's strong support for Ukraine, and London's long-standing antagonism with Moscow, would make Ukraine an attractive target for the Russians.

The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper, reported Sunday that British officials were concerned that Russia, China and Iran were feeding disinformation about Catherine in an attempt to destabilize the country.

Asked in Parliament on Monday about these reports, the deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, did not name the countries, but said they were “a reminder to all of us that it is important for us to ensure that we deal with valid and reliable information, and they are appropriately skeptical of many online sources.”

In 2020, a British parliamentary committee concluded that Russia had mounted a sustained and sophisticated campaign to undermine British democracy, using tactics ranging from disinformation and meddling in elections to funneling dirty money and employing members of the House of Representatives. Lord. The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the findings as “Russophobia”.

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

Professor Innes, who leads a research program exploring the causes and consequences of digital misinformation, said his team noticed a mysterious spike in a certain type of social media posts on March 19, a day after it Video emerged of Catherine and William leaving a grocery store near their home in Windsor.

A widely repeated post on X contained an image from the video, with Catherine's face clearly altered. He wondered: “Why do these big media channels want us to believe that this is Kate and William? But as we can see, I'm not Kate or William…”

By tracking the 45 accounts that recycled this post, Professor Innes said the researchers found that they all came from a single main account, which bore the name Master Firs. It had the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation operation known in the industry as Doppelgänger, he said.

Since 2017, Doppelgänger has been linked to the creation of fake websites impersonating real news organizations in Europe and the United States. Last week, the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions against two Russians and their companies for involvement in cyber influence operations. They are believed to be part of the Doppelgänger network.

Catherine isn't the only member of the royal family to have become the subject of an online feeding frenzy in Russia. On the same day as the numerous posts about the video, incorrect news about the death of King Charles III began circulating on Telegram, a popular social network in Russia.

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

Beyond Russian involvement, rumors and gossip about Catherine's health have popped up in many corners of the web, including reports sympathetic to William's brother, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan. With such a widespread online frenzy, the impact of any state actor could be muted.

“It is very difficult to isolate just one piece of it,” Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of the EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels research organization that played a role in identifying the Russia-based disinformation group in 2022 and gave it the name Doppelgänger. “The question is what is made up by the media, online influences or inauthentic sources. Everything is interconnected.”

Such campaigns are also particularly difficult to measure, he said, because social media companies like X and Meta have limited access to data that would allow researchers, journalists and civil society groups to get a more granular look at the spread of material on their platforms.

Nor are some paid disinformation groups very discriminating about the material they spread online, Alaphilippe said. “On Monday you might see bots promoting a Russian narrative,” she said. “They could play online on Tuesday. On Wednesday they will be able to campaign on crypto scams.

Even as awareness of Russian disinformation campaigns increased following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the volume of Internet deception and the spread of lies has not slowed.

Through bots, online trolls and disinformation peddlers, Russian-linked groups are preying on news events to sow confusion and discord. Ukraine has been the focus of their efforts over the past two years as President Vladimir V. Putin seeks to undermine the West's resolve to continue supporting the war.

A French government minister recently accused Russia of artificially amplifying concerns over last year's bed bug scare in Paris. Another false claim that media monitoring groups said was amplified by Russia was that the European Union allowed powdered insects to be mixed with food.

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

Fake news sites have appeared in the United States and Europe to promote Russian propaganda and potentially influence the 2024 elections. In YouTube and TikTok videos, people posed as Ukrainian doctors and film producers to tell self-interested false stories of Russia.

“Whether they spread it for profit or for political purposes, these kinds of actors tend to jump on anything engaging and controversial,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. “Not unlike some media outlets,” he added, although their motivations may differ.

“When you have a political motivation,” Professor Nielsen said, “the point is rarely persuasion, but rather attempts to undermine people's trust in the media environment.”

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