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Sat 5 December 2020

Stephen Komarnyckyj reports on a Kremlin-friendly online operation that tried to sow division between the UK and its allies remained undetected for years

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A newly discovered online Russian operation tried to mould public opinion in the UK and elsewhere for 6 years before it was detected.

The operation posted fake stories, including one about a plot by extremist ‘remainers’ to assassinate Boris Johnson was uncovered by researchers at Graphika, a US-based network analysis firm who have produced a detailed report on its activities. They gave the operation the name ‘Secondary Infektion’ and traced it to Russia.

Medium posts by Secondary Infektion, originally exposed by the DFRLab. Left, the claim that extremist Remainers were plotting to assassinate Boris Johnson; right, the claim that the Real IRA was recruiting Islamist militants. Source – GRAPHIKA

Launched in January 2014 and still operating in early 2020, Secondary Infektion was vast in scope and posted content on over 300 sites in seven languages. Their stories were often distributed through accounts with western sounding names, such as Chris Woods.

Graphika has not yet identified who was responsible for the operation but Secondary Infektion clearly supported Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the EU and NATO. Ukraine was the operation’s main target, followed by the US. However, the United Kingdom was sporadically targeted from early 2016 onwards when the 2016 EU Referendum was held and in 2018 after the assassination attempt on the Skripals.


Angles of Attack – the Transatlantic Alliance

Secondary Infektion’s British themes were designed to sow discord inside the United Kingdom and between Britain and other states.

Britain was described as an imperialist power which colluded with the US. It was also portrayed as being interfered with by the US or somehow being able to sway events in Washington. Secondary Infektion didn’t care about the contradiction between the image of the United Kingdom as an American puppet that was simultaneously able to manipulate America.

The UK was also depicted as being divided over Brexit, Scottish independence and Northern Ireland. Secondary Infektion’s fakes were, in these instances, targeting genuine vulnerabilities in British society. However, their fabrications rarely became viral. The operation often used burner accounts, which posted a single fake. Even the most gullible internet users probably baulked at such obvious fakes as the plan to assassinate Johnson and the Real IRA’s supposed recruitment of Islamist fighters. ‘Extremist’ remainers might march through the streets of London waving EU flags but it is highly unlikely that they would blow away Boris. 

Left, a tweet by operation asset “@StevenLaack” embedding a forged document that claimed the United States was spying on the British royal family. Right, a forged tweet attributed to Senator Marco Rubio accusing the UK of interfering in the US midterm elections of 2018. Source – GRAPHIKA

The group’s fakes about the US and UK interfering with each other’s policies had a similar outlandish nature, reminiscent of one of Jeffrey Archer’s more lurid thrillers. A bogus blogger published an obviously fraudulent document supposedly illustrating that the US had spied on the Royal Family. A forged tweet by US Republican Senator Marco Rubio claimed that the British secret service would interfere in the mid-term elections of 2018.

Three Secondary Infektion posts on a fake “interview with an MI6 agent” that claimed that MI6 had interfered in the US election to prevent Donald Trump’s victory. Source – GRAPHIKA

Secondary Infektion did not focus on domestic British electoral politics but it did try to influence the Brexit referendum. Two of its accounts claimed that the British government was cheating ahead of the vote. The operation probably tried to destabilise US and UK trade talks by leaking a trove of apparently genuine documents on Reddit. The documents were subsequently e-mailed to the UK Labour Party which exploited them during the election of 12 December 2019. The leak and the methods used to promote the material bore the hallmarks of a Secondary Infektion operation.

However, the leak was not intended to help Labour but to weaken trust between the US and the UK.


Post Truth Truama

The operation’s main focus was sowing discord and, as the authors of the report note, trying “to set Poles against Germans, Germans against Americans, Americans against Britons, and absolutely everyone against Ukrainians”.

Graphika is sceptical about its impact, noting Secondary Infektion’s use of ‘burner’ accounts with a limited following and audience for its fakes. But maybe the audience reach of Secondary Infektion’s fakes is not the whole story.

The operation may have been part of a package of Russian measures which are aimed at transforming the political climate in western countries. There are now many voters and politicians in the West who believe that using fakes is an acceptable way to promote your cause. Dutch opposition politicians such as Thierry Baudet have circulated bogus claims about flight MH17, arguing that it might not have been shot down by Russia. Right-wing activists in the UK are circulating their own fakes about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. These involve claims that a BLM protestor slit the throat of a British ‘patriot’ while others threw a brick at a police horse.

Some of those who have posted these forgeries know they are fake, but will not remove them because they believe that the truth no longer matters. That may be the lasting legacy of Secondary Infektion and Russia’s wider subversion of the West.


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