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Avalanche of mock news sites with ties to Russia emerge in the US| GuyWhoKnowsThings

In the depleted field of journalism in the United States, a handful of websites with names that suggest a focus on news close to home have appeared in recent weeks: DC Weekly, New York News Daily, Chicago Chronicle and a more recent sister publication, Miami Chronicle. .

In fact, they are not local news organizations at all. They are Russian creations, researchers and government officials say, meant to imitate real news organizations to boost Kremlin propaganda sandwiched between a sometimes bizarre mix of stories about crime, politics and culture.

While Russia has long sought ways to influence public discourse in the United States, fake news organizations (at least five, so far) represent a technological leap in its efforts to find new platforms to deceive unsuspecting American readers. . The sites, researchers and officials said, could well be the foundation of an online network poised to expose disinformation ahead of November's U.S. presidential election.

Patrick Warren, co-director of Clemson University's Media Forensics Hub, which has exposed furtive Russian disinformation efforts, said advances in artificial intelligence and other digital tools had “made this even easier to do and that the content that they publish was even more specific. .”

The Miami Chronicle website first appeared on February 26. Its slogan falsely claims to have published “the Florida News since 1937.”

Amid some true reporting, the site published a story last week about a “leaked audio recording” of Victoria Nuland, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, discussing a shift in US support for Russia's embattled opposition. after the death of the Russian dissident. Aleksei A. Navalny. The recording is a crude fake, according to administration officials who would only speak anonymously to discuss intelligence matters.

The campaign, experts and officials say, appears to involve remnants of the media empire once controlled by Yevgeny V. Prigozhina former associate of President Vladimir V. Putin, whose troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, interfered in the 2016 presidential elections between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Prigozhin died in a plane crash outside Moscow in August after leading a brief military uprising against the Russian military, but his continued operations underscore the importance the Kremlin places on its information battles around the world. It is unclear who exactly took command.

“Putin would be a complete and utter idiot if he allowed the network to fall apart,” said Darren Linvill, Warren's partner at Clemson. “He needs the Prigozhin network more than ever.”

Clemson investigators revealed the Russian connections behind the DC Weekly website in a December report. After their disclosure, the Russian narratives began appearing on another site created in October, Clear Story News. Since then, new points of sale have appeared.

The websites of the Chicago Chronicle and the New York News Daily, whose name is clearly intended to evoke the city's historic Daily News tabloid, were created on January 18, according to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which monitors the domains.

All outlets use the same WordPress software to create the sites and, as a result, have similar designs.

The outlets have logos and names that evoke a bygone era of American journalism, an effort to create a semblance of authenticity. The Chicago Chronicle operated from 1895 to 1907 before closing for a reason that would be all too familiar to today's struggling newspapers: it was unprofitable.

They also regularly update with the main breaking news, which creates the impression of topicality at first glance. An article about the Supreme Court's ruling on Trump's eligibility to remain on the primary ballot in Colorado appeared on the Miami Chronicle's site within hours of the decision.

In other respects, the websites are poorly constructed, even incomplete in some parts. The Miami Chronicle's “about” page, for example, is full of Lorem ipsum, the fictional Latin text. Some of the images on the site have file names from the Russian original. (Neither site publishes work contact information.)

The purpose is not to trick a discerning reader into delving into the website, much less subscribing, Linvill said. Instead, the goal is to lend an aura of credibility to social media posts that spread misinformation.

The initiative follows a pattern the Kremlin has used before: allegations of laundering appearing first online through smaller news organizations. Those reports spread again online and appear in even more news organizations, including Russia's state news agencies and television networks.

“The page is there simply to look realistic enough to fool a casual reader into believing they are reading a genuine American-branded item,” Mr. Linvill said.

DC Weekly published a series of Kremlin narratives starting in August, according to the Clemson study. One included a false claim that the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky purchased more than $1.1 million worth of jewelry at the Cartier store in New York during her visit to the United Nations in September.

The site claims to have a staff of 17 journalists, but they appear to have been made up. The biography of the author of that story, called Jessica Devlin, used as a profile photo a photograph of Judy Batalion, the author of a best-selling book about the Jewish women who fought against the Nazis. Batalion said he had never heard of the site or its author until fact-checkers contacted her.

Other articles appearing on the sites appear to have been taken from real news organizations, including Reuters and Fox News, or from English-language news agencies of Russian state media, such as RT. Some stories have carelessly included instructions or responses from one of OpenAI's chatbots, Linvill and Warren wrote in the study.

The New York News Daily recently published a story about alleged U.S. plans to interfere in this month's Russian election, whose winner, Putin, is a foregone conclusion. It was spread on social media by people who have long had ties to the Kremlin's state media apparatus.

Another article last week appeared to come from a fictional character from The X user was named Brian Wilson and was described as an associate producer at Paramount Pictures.

The account has posted on X only 85 times, the vast majority of them about movies over two days in February. A week later, the user suddenly announced a deal to produce a Zelensky biopic – “The Price of Victory” – in a series of posts. These were followed last week by two more that featured real videos of actors Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren manipulated to appear to wish them success with the film.

The videos appear to have originated from Cameo, the celebrity greeting app, which appeared in a previous Russian campaign which Microsoft revealed in December.

A Paramount Pictures spokeswoman said no one named Brian Wilson worked at the studio. A Cameo spokesperson said Monday that the company was not aware of the videos, but added: “As a general rule, when we are informed about posts that misuse Cameo content, we request their removal from the platform in question.” Later that day, the two videos were blocked on account X for violating intellectual property rights. X then suspended the account.

Posts about the film were widely spread on Telegram. Many users cited the current New York Daily News as a source and said it highlighted an abuse of Western financial assistance in Ukraine's war against Russia. The narrative was also amplified by outlets previously linked to Russian intelligence agencies, including NewsFront and Politnavigator, said Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft's Threat Analysis Center.

Articles typically receive hundreds of posts on a variety of platforms, including X, Facebook and Telegram, as well as Reddit, Gab and Truth Social, although the exact reach is difficult to measure. Together, they could theoretically reach thousands of readers, even millions.

“This is absolutely a prelude to the type of interference we will see in the election cycle,” Linvill said. “It's cheap, very specific and obviously effective.”

Jeanne Noonan Of The World contributed reports.

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