A recent report has revealed a comprehensive disinformation campaign known as ‘Operation Overload’, which aims to spread pro-Russian propaganda across the West. This campaign involves foreign interventions and strategic manipulation of information, using multiple platforms to propagate false narratives. Findings, based on research by the Russian activist group Antibot4Navalny3 in collaboration with AFP, uncover a sophisticated operation designed to overwhelm fact-checkers, including Faktoje, along with global media organizations.

Jona Plumbi

A report by CheckFirst, a Finnish software company focusing on search techniques in the fight against disinformation, has exposed a widespread disinformation campaign conducted through various platforms, aimed at spreading pro-Russian propaganda in the West.

The campaign, named ‘Operation Overload’, reveals its purpose.  On one hand, the campaign aims to force fact-checkers to spend time debunking fabricated falsehoods, while on the other, it aims to further propagate these false narratives through them.

The timing of emails received by fact-checking organizations strategically coincides with major events such as the protests by European farmers in early 2024. Such outreach suggests efforts to maximize the impact of distributed information, promoting increased public engagement and media focus during these times for potential influence or to sow division.

It is crucial to understand that the identified false content originates from Russian social media platforms and is disseminated across Russian-language websites and blogs, including state-owned media, with a clear goal of promoting the Kremlin’s military agenda to local audiences. The report highlights the coordination and exceptional sophistication of Operation Overload. The campaign is still ongoing, expanding in scope and evolving.

Techniques Used

The operation unfolds in several phases:

Content Creation: Manipulated narratives are initially posted on Russian Telegram channels and websites linked to the Kremlin.

Distribution: The false content is then spread on platforms like X (formerly Twitter), involving mainstream media, institutions, and fact-checkers.

Email Campaign: A coordinated email campaign targets fact-checkers, urging them to verify content related to Telegram, X, or pro-Russian sites such as Pravda and Sputnik.

The disinformation campaign blends different types and formats of content to create a credible narrative with multiple layers. This narrative is strategically reinforced across platforms, generating a false sense of urgency among journalists and fact-checkers. 

Guide to Identifying

emails from Operation Overload

Who sends the emails?

All emails originate from individuals portrayed as concerned citizens. They are sent from Gmail accounts,

which is typical for personal use. This anonymity makes it challenging to identify individuals, as anyone can create a free Gmail account. Email headers indicate they are sent from the Gmail interface, not from

a personal email client that would reveal the sender’s IP address.

What do they seek?

The email subjects often resemble someone waving a flag, stating, ‘Hey, check this out, is it true or not?’ Each focuses

on verifying ‘news’ or

rumors.

FACT CHECK

When do these emails arrive?

These are not random emails; they have been arriving almost regularly since August 2023, with a recurring frequency

and different accounts, yet a consistent style.

This suggests that they are not just random individuals

asking random questions, but rather a coordinated effort

to achieve specific objectives.

Links within the emails

The emails contain links to various internet sites and social media posts (mostly Telegram and X).

 

Another tactic employed is the imitation of legitimate media and individuals, leveraging real-world events. The disseminated content (videos, images) is marked with logos of reputable Western media or other trusted organizations, aiming to deceive targets into believing they are accessing information from credible sources.

Faktoje amid targeted organizations

In total, accounts of over 800 organizations from more than 75 countries were targeted by the Operation Overload network, including over 200 accounts belonging to fact-checking organizations.

CheckFirst’s report analyzed over 200 emails sent to more than 20 media organizations to uncover how this campaign operates. These emails often prompt recipients to verify dubious claims, referencing manipulated content aimed at overwhelming credible news sources and promoting the Kremlin’s agenda.

Among the targeted organizations is Faktoje, the Albanian fact-checking organization.

Since late 2023, Faktoje has received at least 24 emails prompting the verification of various articles, mostly related to the conflict in Ukraine.

All references are in English, and often the names used as senders appear to belong to American citizens.

The authors of these emails urged Faktoje to verify the content provided, supposedly found on the internet.

The email subjects often call for verification of the claims briefly described in the message. This is followed by a short list of links to posts on Telegram, X, or well-known pro-Russian sites like Pravda and Sputnik.

Primary Narratives and Visual disinformation

CheckFirst’s report has pinpointed five distinct themes, characterized by key words used in the emails sent to organizations for verification.

Most of them are connected to the war in Ukraine, current events in Europe, or specific countries like France or Germany.

Conflict in Ukraine: The majority of the referenced content focuses on Ukraine, including 92 videos and numerous graffiti. These often mock President Zelensky, accuse Ukrainians of fabricated crimes, and repeat claims of rampant Nazism in Ukraine.  Western military aid in these claims is often associated with economic crises in the West.

Public Events in the EU: Significant events such as the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris and the UEFA European Football Championship in Germany were also targeted by this campaign. The content aimed to discredit France as a hospitable nation, suggesting alarms about outbreaks of diseases or potential terrorist attacks.

Economic Crisis in Europe: The ongoing economic crisis in Europe was another important topic, with content aiming to sow fear and distrust among the public.

This trend is also evident in 24 emails sent to Faktoje’s email address. More than half of them (13 emails) are related to the war in Ukraine and the discrediting of the Ukrainian army, people, or President Volodymyr Zelensky. The second most referenced topic is the Olympic Games and policies in France (7 emails). The rest of the fabricated information referenced by Faktoje is linked to narratives against countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States.

Visual content, especially since the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine, plays a crucial role in disinformation campaigns. Research indicates that visual and multimodal disinformation spreads more effectively than text-based disinformation.

The campaign strategically uses videos and images to enhance the credibility of false narratives, provoke strong emotional responses, and capture the attention of users.

Conclusion

The sophisticated tactics of Operation Overload underscore the growing challenge in combating disinformation. The campaign primarily targets media-related entities, particularly journalists and fact-checkers, aiming to undermine their credibility, sow confusion, and polarize public opinion. By exploiting major public events and real crises, the campaign amplifies public anxiety and distrust.

The involvement of organizations like Faktoje highlights the global reach and persistent threat of such disinformation efforts. It is essential for the global community of fact-checkers and media to remain vigilant, implement robust countermeasures, and continue to expose these malicious campaigns to protect the integrity of information ecosystems.

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