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Disinformation Actors Are Gearing Up for U.S. Elections, FireEye Warns

Jamie Tarabay
·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Fake news campaigns orchestrated by pro-Russian actors are thriving ahead of the U.S. elections, stoking concerns of a repeat of the large-scale interference that disrupted 2016’s ballot, says cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc.

Among the more prominent is an operation dubbed Ghostwriter because its participants masquerade as journalists or analysts to push fabricated content in media friendly to Russia across the Baltic region, designed to unsettle the NATO presence there.

The group of actors, in operation for years, has in recent months disseminated huge volumes of targeted misinformation across Poland, Lithuania and Latvia where hundreds of NATO troops are stationed.

In two notable instances, they fabricated a transcript and attributed quotes to an American commanding general stationed in Germany, bemoaning the state of Baltic and Polish military forces. Another falsified a memo from NATO’s secretary general declaring that troops would leave the region because of an outbreak of Covid-19.

“One of our biggest concerns is that they’re developing a method that could be leveraged during the election,” said John Hultquist, senior director at Mandiant Threat Intelligence, a FireEye unit.

Read more: Social Media Braces for a Deluge of Voter Misinformation

The methods include planting fake stories on legitimate websites that have been unknowingly compromised and using made-up personas to push stories across platforms, the firm says. The information campaigns have been going on for years but have taken on a more urgent tone as threat actors take advantage of uncertainty and panic around Covid-19.

Eastern European populations have been the main target, as the campaigns work to try to turn them against NATO. At least one report -- circulated among Russian-backed media outlets -- claimed infected Canadian soldiers have been spreading the virus in Latvia, which Canadian and NATO commanders rebuffed in May.

Those efforts bore the hallmarks of another reported attempt that Russian intelligence services were using websites to disseminate flawed information about the virus, Hultquist said. The disclosures, reported by The Associated Press, singled out an information agency registered in Russia called InfoRos that runs several websites that “have leveraged the pandemic to promote anti-Western objectives and spread disinformation.” The AP identified two people who’d served in Russia’s military intelligence service as having held leadership roles at InfoRos.

“One of the things we see with these actors, we know they’re going into similar websites and posting fictitious narratives, so it’s a very similar operation in some regards,” Hultquist said.

American intelligence and law enforcement officials have been investigating possible Russian interference in the upcoming presidential elections since earlier this year. Bloomberg reported they were trying to determine if Russia was trying to undermine Joe Biden and warned that election interference in 2020 “could be more brazen” than in 2016.

Read more: China, Russia Seek to Disrupt Elections, U.S. Official Warns

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