France accuses Russians of impersonating French government and media to spread disinformation
French officials on Tuesday accused Russian actors of launching “a digital information manipulation campaign against France,” with the assistance of Russian state entities.
The campaign, which the authorities said they had monitored for more than a year, involved the creation of fake websites impersonating French government departments and national media outlets, alongside fake social media accounts.
Russian embassies and cultural centers were accused by the French ministry of foreign affairs of having “actively participated in amplifying this campaign.” Russia was undermining “the conditions for a peaceful democratic debate and therefore undermine our democratic institutions,” the ministry said.
The campaign was detailed by France’s Vigilance and Protection Service against Foreign Digital Interference, also known as VIGINUM, which was founded in July 2021. It involved extensive use of typosquatting to impersonate legitimate web domains as well as the creation of new media websites.
It appears to be part of an operation identified by Meta last year, in which the Russian actors had also impersonated other Western news media outlets including The Guardian and Der Spiegel newspapers, as well as Italy's ANSA news agency.
VIGINUM sits under France’s General Secretariat for Defense and National Security (SGDSN). Its official report on the influence operation, published on the SGDSN website, warns the campaign had attempted to push a number of false narratives designed to undermine French support for Ukraine.
These narratives suggested that sanctions targeting Russia were ineffective and harmful to European countries; that Western states were Russophobic; that the Ukrainian armed forces were barbaric and associated with neo-Nazis; and that welcoming Ukrainian refugees had negative effects on the host countries.
The campaign impersonated four of France's most popular daily newspapers — 20 Minutes, Le Monde, Le Parisien, and Le Figaro — publishing “at least 58 articles” on the fake sites to push these false narratives, according to VIGINIUM.
In one fake news story revealed by Meta, based on an original report in The Guardian regarding a massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, the Russian actors reported that Ukraine had staged the killings.
The mass murder of civilians in Bucha by the Russian armed forces has been documented by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Last December, Meta attributed this influence campaign to two specific Russian companies, Structura National Technology, and Social Design Agency (Агентство Социального Проектирования), both of which appeared to be unconnected to previously identified organizations.
The network had targeted “primarily Germany, and also France, Italy, Ukraine and the United Kingdom with narratives focused on the war in Ukraine,” said Meta.
French officials stated: “France condemns these actions as unworthy of a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. No attempt at manipulation will deter France from supporting Ukraine in the face of the Russian war of aggression.”
Alexander Martin is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.