Since early 2020 we have been working to expose how Russia has weaponized conspiracy theories. The same tools and techniques are still in use and have been very effective. The following is explain how Russia produces and spreads false news from the underground marketplace to reach the end-user (YOU).
Like any other industry, producing fake news requires tools, and the online underground is rife with them. These tools are available in online underground markets and in some ways can be considered an outgrowth of existing services such as Black Hat Search Engine Optimization (SEO), click fraud, and the sale of human and bot traffic.
Click fraud, however, has become less lucrative thanks to advances in click fraud detection technologies- and the growing number of businesses that use them. The online underground’s purveyors countered this by redirecting their skills towards developing social media promotion services.
An examination of the Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern, and English-based underground marketplaces will reveal a range of services available to anyone looking to distribute fake news and launch public opinion manipulation campaigns. Offerings vary and reflect regional differences in social and online culture.
There are, however, common underlying trends with how they are sold: from creating and distributing content to silencing or even removing content if it serves the customer’s purpose.
It’s important to note that underground services aren’t indispensable, as they are also available in gray and sometimes even legitimate markets. High-profile—or even state-sponsored operators—may have their own resources to mount a fake news campaign, but the underground offers a unique advantage: anonymity. Not only does it enhance the spread of fake or propaganda-driven content, but also helps shroud its instigators from accountability.
THE RUSSIAN UNDERGROUND ON THE OTHER HAND IS A ONE-STOP-SHOP FOR FAKE NEWS DISTRIBUTION
While content marketing is a legitimate service in Russia and is advertised on SEO boards and social media, they are also sold on Russian-speaking underground forums. The marketplace can be likened to a one-stop shop for creating, promoting, and manipulating stories and events, news, and profiles—real or imagined—that favors the clientele’s motive.
These forums offer services for each stage of the campaign—from writing press releases, promoting them in news outlets, to sustaining their momentum with positive or negative comments, some of which can be even supplied by the customer in a template. Advertisements for such services are frequently found in both public and private sections of forums, as well as on banner ads on the forums themselves.
CROWDSOURCING THE PROMOTION OF CONTENT
What’s notable in the Russian underground, however, is how it leverages crowdsourcing to manipulate public opinion. It works just like any crowdsourcing effort would—funding projects by sourcing them from the contributions of a sizeable number of people—except that the contributions amount to the promotion of profiles, subscribers, and likes. By adopting this model, the barriers of entry for disseminating fake news and manipulating public opinion are practically lowered to completing tasks and promoting other content with little to no monetary capital involved.
VTope—a multiparty, online collaborative system with a throng of over 2,000,000 mostly real users and support for platforms such as VKontakte (VK), Ok.com, YouTube, Twitter, Ask.fm, Facebook, and Instagram. Its workflow comprises implementing tasks (liking or following a profile or a post, joining a group, etc.) that incentivize users with points, which they can resell or use for self-promotion.
VTope’s service is initially free of charge, and participants can earn points by completing tasks. Points can also be purchased as coupons that can be bought on-site, but they are also widely available in underground marketplaces where they’re often cheaper than on VTope. For instance, a coupon worth 10,000 points is sold for RUB 1,190 ($21) on VTope, and RUB 500 ($8) in the underground. A coupon worth 50,000 points costs RUB 3,490 ($62).
The same sourcing model is adopted by competitors, with varying degrees of selling points. Among them is SMOFast, so named likely as a reference to Social Media Optimization (SMO), an online marketing strategy that leverages social media to promote a product or brand. SMOFast allows contributors to promote internet sites and pages, flaunting a 500,000-strong registered user base that can provide traffic (and statistics) from real visitors to supported platforms. It uses a coin system, which is also available in the underground.
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