A seemingly unsuspecting website, PeaceData.net, was set up by the Russians, according to the FBI. The site was allegedly created to influence the American presidential elections. Facebook and Twitter removed pages that were linked to the website.
Since February Peace Data has published some 500 English and 200 Arabic articles, for example on American interference in other countries and criticism of capitalism. In this way, leftist supporters of the Democrats could be persuaded to no longer support the moderate candidate Joe Biden.
Facebook saw that people behind the site had ties to the Internet Research Agency in the past. That’s the infamous ‘troll factory’ from St. Petersburg. It played a role in the American elections in 2016 by trying to deepen divisions in America and increase support for candidate Donald Trump.
Following a tip from the FBI, Facebook called in Graphika to analyse Peace Data. The researchers saw that the site hired independent journalists. They call this a new tactic of the Russians: “This prevented them from betraying themselves with English language errors and created credibility by hiding behind authentic journalists”
Remarkably, the freelance journalists hired probably had no idea who was behind the website.
A journalist who wants to remain anonymous tells the CCeit that he was approached in March for an article. “I took a look at the site and read two or three articles on fairly standard human rights topics. For example, about the arms sales that fuel the conflict in Yemen, all things you can read elsewhere. They also did not interfere with the content of my article. I think it’s pretty dark that they had me on their site as an employee.”
The American broadcaster NBC spoke to an American journalist who also wrote for the site. He did not know that the site was supported by the Russians, he says: “They approached me on Twitter and offered 200 dollars per article. I lost my job because of corona and I needed money to pay my rent.”
The Russian group that might be behind this went even further to make a credible impression: the administrators were on the site with their picture. But now it turns out that they do not exist at all. They are fake characters.
Graphika analyzed these photos and concludes “with a high degree of certainty that they were created with a form of artificial intelligence known as Generative Adverserial Networks The non-existent individuals were ‘active’ on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
In their infancy
Peace Data wasn’t very big on social media yet. There were thirteen Facebook accounts with about 14,000 followers, mainly from the Arab page. One English Facebook page had only 200 followers. “This operation was still in the early stages of building an audience, and was taken out of the air while it was still in its infancy,” conclude the researchers.
On social media they may have disappeared, but the Peace Data website can still be visited. In a statement today, they deny they’re a Russian propaganda tool: “We are shocked and dismayed! We can proudly say it is an ugly lie. Our site was created to write about peace and to expose the greedy business powers and war hitters around the world”