Portal Kombat: Russian disinformation strategy in Europe

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Portal Kombat: Russian disinformation strategy in Europe

Written by Marcello Sacco

A French investigation has uncovered a network of sites, whose origins can be traced back to the Russian Federation, that not only provide disinformation, but undermine the very possibility of informing. A risk that is growing in Europe as the European elections draw nearer.

It sounds like the name of a video game, but it is no joke: “Portal Kombat” is one of the information games in which democracies are playing for their titles. The strategy that bears this name, seductive and threatening at the same time, was discovered in France during an investigation by the state agency Viginum, which is in charge of surveillance and cybersecurity in the country. Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné announced it on 12 February 2024. He did so in order to make the French, and not only the French, aware of the risks associated with disinformation, which tend to increase as the European elections approach.

The French state agency Viginum has uncovered a Russian disinformation and propaganda network in Europe that has been dubbed “Portal Kombat”.

What is it about? Portal Kombat is a network of information portals, but the French authorities insist on putting “information” in inverted commas. Viginum, in fact, has identified at least 193 sites linked to it and dedicated to spreading fake news aimed at presenting, among other things, Russia’s war in Ukraine as a legitimate military operation. It is no coincidence that the network was created and is run by TigerWeb, a company based in Crimea, the peninsula occupied by the Russians since 2014, when pro-Russian president Viktor Janukovyč fell and fled the country.

But the aim of disinformation, cleverly created by autocratic countries or by agencies somehow linked to the autocracies that sponsor them, is not so much to espouse a thesis and defend it at all costs, even at the cost of lying. The best disinformation tactic today is to make noise, to embrace one thesis to the hilt, but also its opposite. As Italian journalist Mattia Bagnoli, author of the book Putin Model, recently reminded us in a radio interview, the goal is not to make people believe one theory over another. The aim is to make people doubt that there is a shared reality. This is achieved by amplifying the opinions of each target audience, inflating the digital bubbles until they collide.

Already in 2022, coinciding with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the decision by European authorities to ban the broadcast and publication in Europe of the content of the Russia Today (RT) television channel and the Sputnik news agency, three Stanford University researchers published a study on the coverage of the BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement by some Russian media outlets in 2020, the year of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

According to the study, some new sites such as Soapbox or Redfish, particularly savvy and aggressive on their social networks, jumped on the anti-Western protest bandwagon by conveying a positive image of BLM, while they were flanked by the more restrained, even conservative, views of RT and Sputnik, which emphasised the violent nature of the movement, appealing more to the fears of the average US citizen who was surrounded by street violence after the gruesome images of George Floyd’s death.

That study, by Samantha Bradshaw, Renée DiResta and Carly Miller, was entitled Playing Both Sides. For the misinformers, there is no one view of reality to defend against the other, perhaps constantly subjecting both to the arguments of the other and, above all, to the healthy test of facts. There is simply no longer a common reality on which to engage in a debate, however heated, but not an argument between the deaf.

Following the French revelations, the European affairs ministers of France, Germany and Poland met on 29 April (in the Weimar Triangle format) and revealed that the Portal Kombat disinformation network continued to grow, with new websites in 19 EU member states and the Western Balkans, not to mention intense Russian activity in Africa and Asia. The three ministers called for more resources to tackle online disinformation.

In this game, the never harmless and never naïve propaganda tools seem to be social networks. For this reason, the European Commission has initiated formal proceedings to assess whether Meta, the group that owns Facebook and Instagram, has breached its commitment to protect the integrity of the European elections by violating the European law on digital services, that Digital Services Act passed in 2022, which is based on a very simple principle: what is forbidden in real life must also be forbidden in the virtual sphere, where the thousand bubbles of reality swell, touch and then burst in our faces.

complementary activities

Since the days of the Soviet Union, the Russians have always had a great ability to influence Western public opinion through propaganda techniques and the dissemination of fake news. This is the strategy of dezinformatsiya (дезинформация). Google some examples of these activities during the Cold War. This is the strategy of dezinformatsiya (дезинформация). Google some examples of these activities during the Cold War.

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Portal Kombat: Russian disinformation strategy in Europe

Written by Marcello Sacco

A French investigation has uncovered a network of sites, whose origins can be traced back to the Russian Federation, that not only provide disinformation, but undermine the very possibility of informing. A risk that is growing in Europe as the European elections draw nearer.

“Portal Kombat” sounds like the name of a video game, but it is not a joke, but a disinformation strategy discovered in France during an investigation by the state agency Viginum, which is in charge of surveillance and cybersecurity in the country. Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné announced it on 12 February 2024. He did so in order to make the French, and not only the French, aware of the risks associated with disinformation, which tend to increase as the European elections approach.

The French state agency Viginum has uncovered a Russian disinformation and propaganda network in Europe that has been dubbed “Portal Kombat”.

Portal Kombat is a network of information portals, but the French authorities insist on putting “information” in inverted commas. Viginum, in fact, has identified at least 193 sites linked to it and dedicated to spreading fake news aimed at presenting, among other things, Russia’s war in Ukraine as a legitimate military operation. It is no coincidence that the network was created and is run by TigerWeb, a company based in the Crimean Peninsula, occupied by the Russians since 2014.

But the aim of disinformation, artfully created by autocratic countries or agencies somehow connected to the autocracies that sponsor them, is not so much to pick one thesis and defend it at all costs, even at the cost of lying. The best disinformation tactic today is to defend one thesis, but also its opposite. As Italian journalist Mattia Bagnoli, author of the book Putin Model, recently reminded us in a radio interview, the aim is not to make people believe one thesis rather than another. The aim is to make people doubt that there is a shared reality. This is achieved by amplifying the opinions of each target audience, inflating digital bubbles until they collide.

Back in 2022, three researchers from Stanford University published a study on the coverage given to the BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement by some Russian media in 2020, the year of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers. According to the study, some new sites such as Soapbox or Redfish, particularly savvy and aggressive in their social media, jumped on the anti-Western protest bandwagon by conveying a positive image of BLM, while alongside them were the conservative views of RT and Sputnik, which emphasised the violent nature of the movement and pandering to the fears of the average American citizen who saw himself surrounded by street violence after the gruesome images of George Floyd’s death.

That study was entitled Playing Both Sides. For the disinformers, there is no one view of reality to defend against the other, perhaps by constantly subjecting both to the arguments of the other and, above all, to the test of facts. There is simply no longer a common reality to debate.

Following the French revelations, the European affairs ministers of France, Germany and Poland met on 29 April (in the Weimar Triangle format) and revealed that the Portal Kombat disinformation network continued to grow, with new websites in 19 EU member states and the Western Balkans, not to mention Russia’s intense activity in Africa and Asia. The three ministers called for more resources to tackle online disinformation.

In this game, social networks appear to be neither harmless nor naïve propaganda tools. For this reason, the European Commission has initiated formal proceedings to assess whether Meta, the group that owns Facebook and Instagram, has breached its commitment to protect the integrity of the European elections by violating the European law on digital services, that Digital Services Act passed in 2022, which is based on a very simple principle: what is forbidden in real life must also be forbidden in the virtual sphere, where the thousand bubbles of reality swell, touch and then burst in our faces.

Since the days of the Soviet Union, the Russians have always had a great ability to influence Western public opinion through propaganda techniques and the dissemination of fake news. This is the strategy of dezinformatsiya (дезинформация). Google some examples of these activities during the Cold War. This is the strategy of dezinformatsiya (дезинформация). Google some examples of these activities during the Cold War.

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