Engaging threat actors to launch a disinformation campaign in the Western media is “alarmingly simple and inexpensive” according to a new report.
Using the Recorded Future platform, Insikt Group researchers set up a fake company located in a Western country to gain insight into the chilling world of disinformation. Researchers then hired two sophisticated disinformation vendors, which they found on a Russian-speaking underground forum, to influence public perception of the fictitious company.
The first vendor, given the code name Raskolnikov in the report (presumably as a nod to Dostoevsky’s protagonist in Crime and Punishment), was engaged to paint a positive picture of the company. The second vendor, code-named Doctor Zhivago, was hired to destroy the reputation of the company, which was code-named Tyrell Corporation in the report.
Researchers were able to launch a customizable month-long media campaign with each vendor for only a few thousand dollars. Services ranged from $8 for a social media post to $1,500 for SEO services and traditional media articles.
Raskolnikov created accounts for Tyrell Corporation on major Western social media platforms and gathered over 100 followers on each account. They offered a price list for sharing content on 45 websites, including ft.com, thelondoneconomic.com, eveningexpress.co.uk, and thefintechtimes.com.
Insikt Group researchers said: “In two weeks, the Tyrell Corporation was in the ‘news’—one of the media sources was a less established media outlet, though the other was a very reputable source that had published a newspaper for nearly a century.”
Doctor Zhivago claimed to work with a team that included journalists, editors, translators, search engine optimization (SEO) specialists, and hackers. The threat actor used social media to spread claims that Tyrell Corporation had manipulated employees, and even offered to file a complaint against the company for its supposed involvement in human trafficking.
Researchers said: “First, a group of older accounts—referred to as ‘aged accounts’— that posted links to the articles they had published in media sources was employed. Then, a new batch of accounts that reposted content from the aforementioned aged accounts to amplify the messages was used.
“These new accounts befriended citizens living in the same country the Tyrell Corporation was located in to make the campaign more effective by targeting the audience.”
Based on the predictions of the researchers, it seems we are transitioning from an era in which you can’t believe everything in the media to one in which you can’t believe anything at all.
The researchers said: “We predict that disinformation as a service will spread from a nation–state tool to one increasingly used by private individuals and entities, given how easy it is to implement.”