WASHINGTON • Fake news campaigns orchestrated by pro-Russia actors are thriving ahead of the United States elections, stoking concerns of a repeat of the large-scale interference that disrupted 2016's ballot, said cyber security firm FireEye.
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.
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.
"One of our biggest concerns is that they are developing a method that could be leveraged during the election," said Mr John Hultquist, senior director at Mandiant Threat Intelligence, a FireEye unit.
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 said.
The disinformation efforts are a refinement of what Russia tried to do in 2016. The fake social media accounts and bots used by the Internet Research Agency and other Russia-backed groups to amplify false articles have proved relatively easy to stamp out.
But it is far more difficult to stop the dissemination of such articles that appear on websites that seem legitimate, according to outside experts. Facebook has begun labelling stories that appear on state-sponsored news sites like RT and Sputnik. But it is harder for the social media companies to identify and label news articles that are posted on conspiracy-minded sites, according to experts.
The disclosures, reported by The Associated Press (AP), 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".
AP identified two people who had 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 are going into similar websites and posting fictitious narratives, so it's a very similar operation in some regards," Mr 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 Democratic contender Joe Biden and warned that election interference this year "could be more brazen" than in 2016.