Over the past few years, online disinformation has taken evolutionary leaps forward, with the Internet Research Agency pumping out artificial outrage on social media and hackers leaking documents—both real and fabricated—to suit their narrative. More recently, Eastern Europe has faced a broad campaign that takes fake news ops to yet another level: hacking legitimate news sites to plant fake stories, then hurriedly amplifying them on social media before they’re taken down.
On Wednesday, security firm FireEye released a report on a disinformation-focused group it’s calling Ghostwriter. The propagandists have created and disseminated disinformation since at least March 2017, with a focus on undermining NATO and the US troops in Poland and the Baltics; they’ve posted fake content on everything from social media to pro-Russian news websites. In some cases, FireEye says, Ghostwriter has deployed a bolder tactic: hacking the content management systems of news websites to post their own stories. They then disseminate their literal fake news with spoofed emails, social media, and even op-eds the propagandists write on other sites that accept user-generated content.
That hacking campaign, targeting media sites from Poland to Lithuania, has spread false stories about US military aggression, NATO soldiers spreading coronavirus, NATO planning a full-on invasion of Belarus, and more. “They’re spreading these stories that NATO is a danger, that they resent the locals, that they’re infected, that they’re car thieves,” says John Hultquist, director of intelligence at FireEye. “And they’re pushing these stories out with a variety of means, the most interesting of which is hacking local media websites and planting them. These fictional stories are suddenly bona fide by the sites that they’re on, and then they go in and spread the link to the story.”
FireEye itself did not conduct incident response analyses on these incidents and concedes that it doesn’t know exactly how the hackers are stealing credentials that give them access to the content management systems that allow posting and altering news stories. Nor does it know who is behind the string of website compromises, or for that matter the larger disinformation campaign that the fake stories are a part of.
But the company’s analysts have found that the news site compromises and the online accounts used to spread links to those fabricated stories, as well as the more traditional creation of fake news on social media, blogs, and websites with an anti-US and anti-NATO bent, all tie back to a distinct set of personas, indicating one unified disinformation effort. FireEye’s Hultquist points out that the campaign doesn’t seem financially motivated, indicating a political or state backer, and notes that the focus on driving a wedge between NATO and citizens of Eastern Europe hints at possible Russian involvement.
Nor would it be the first time that Russian hackers planted fake news stories; in 2017, US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian hackers breached Qatar’s state news agency and planted a fake news story designed to embarrass the country’s leader and cause a rift with the US, though US intelligence never confirmed the Kremlin’s involvement.
“We can’t concretely tie it to Russia at this time, but it’s certainly in line with their interests,” Hultquist says of the Ghostwriter campaign. “It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if this is where the evidence leads us.”