For the nascent Internet users of the late 90s and early 2000s, it was a much simpler time. Text-based web design. Pixelated graphics. Dancing babies and hamsters. Remember the fledgling attempts by companies to link websites and popular products – say Coca-Cola – or movies – say the 1996 Warner Brothers feature, Space Jam? Captured by the digital novelty of it all, you might have even created your first goofy website.
Fast forward to the internet of 2020, where websites of all types are increasingly traded as the digital currency of the cross-platform social media age. Many of these early websites lived a long time during the first two decades of the digital age, but have evolved; others have remained the same. Famous, the original site promoting the classic duo of Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny is still in full swing – an unchanged monument to mid-’90s nostalgia that Rolling Stone once called “The Website That Wouldn’t Die.” But what about the early websites that lived short, gritty lives and made die – abandoned by their creators as companies and related products retreated, and the human masses opted for the relative ease of hosting their web presence on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? Indeed, most of these early websites were buried in the graveyard of digital history. But the misinformation providers working on game search engine optimization have dug up some of these sites, cleaned them up, and militarized them. This now appears to include the peddlers of Russian disinformation narratives, who have revived the mold sites as rudimentary propaganda platforms.
Simply put: welcome to the dawn of the era of zombie disinformation websites! While digital security and disinformation experts have focused on the proliferation of Russian bot and troll social media accounts in the wake of the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, disinformation websites zombies have started hiding among the search results of legitimate search media platforms. engines. But with so many dubious sources of disinformation floating around cyberspace, what makes these sites of particular concern?
The potential use and reach of zombie sites could be a possible new front for those who wish to wage low-cost information warfare. Search engines return website keyword search results ranked based on an array of site characteristics. While there is a healthy online dialogue among experts analyzing how search engines like google or yahoo rank results, attributes like click-through rate, keyword usage, backlinks, site domain and age of registration all seem to contribute to rankings. Since it would take a significant amount of organic click-through traffic for these sites to be regularly boosted to appear among legitimate news sites, the fact that these sites already have years or decades of web presence in the bank means that they can be referred further in searches. easily as new local disinformation sites. So while these platforms appear to receive only limited click-through traffic, the mere fact that their specious headlines appear alongside legitimate headlines may already satisfy a common goal of disinformation peddlers: to create a veneer of debate among widely accepted factual reports (for example, an election result). The cost of relaunching an older domain with a history of attributes that would help improve search rankings might be lower than traditional influence ops that rely on armies of bots and trolls (or advanced algorithms). to push disinformation narratives into the mainstream.
So what might these zombie sites look like? Consider a pair of domains: “micetimes.asia” and “robertwoodbrokers.com”. According to the Wayback Machine internet records, micetimes started life as early as July 2014 as a Singapore-based corporate electronic journal, where the “ MICE ” in the URL stood for the “ meeting industry ” , ‘the incentive’, ‘the convention’ and ‘Exhibition’. Micetimes in this form appears to have met an untimely death in late 2015, briefly appeared as a food blog in 2016, before reappearing in its current format in mid-2017. This time, the meaning of the acronym “MICE” has been dismissed in favor of a logo of an actual mouse, with the site titled “The MiceTimes of Asia” claiming to offer “fresh and independent news and opinions from Singapore and Bangkok ”with“ Widest news coverage and fastest dissemination. ” The site’s offerings contrast sharply with this self-description, but instead offer a distinct mix of narratives – mostly stories featuring shoddy machine translations, unintentionally comical, and articles that prompt more questions than answers.
Almost every story on the site is said to be written by a single (seemingly prolific) author named “Paradox” who the site says has written the more than 140,000 articles on micetimes since its “founding” in 2017. A type of d The common story is the ‘reportage’ under the columns titled ‘INCREDIBLE’ or ‘The Incident’, which generally consist of shocking or apocryphal tale bait, often including animals engaged in some level of questionable hijinks or attacking humans . Several stories tell of alleged elephant attacks on humans, including the tragic story of “Amorn Morakot (Morakot Amorn)” (the paradox apparently does not know which) which the elephant killed him and tried to hide. his body. Others speak of a “famous raven” from Vancouver who allegedly stole a knife from a crime scene after allegedly stealing the F6 key from a police laptop. (It turns out that the elephant and raven stories are complicated tales of true stories.)
While a few of these stories may have a mention of Southeast Asia, the majority of the stories deal with regions and topics that the Kremlin might consider “close to abroad.” This includes a litany of suspected security incidents, often set up in Eastern European countries with alarming headlines like “In Warsaw Massive Explosion” and convoluted phrases like “it is noted that As a result of the incident, none of the engineers were injured. “Still others have pushed anti-Western and pro-Kremlin narratives on divisive issues like Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. there are dozens of articles that seem to be automatically translated from Russian, sometimes so poorly done that several words in the article seem to have failed in the software translation, appearing instead in the original Cyrillic. Others, like articles with belligerent headlines like “Superpower hit the table over Nord Stream 2. The world shook” and “About gas, there are two news stories: the good and the bad …” include numbers and images whose text is entirely in russ e.
The story of robertwoodbrokers appears to follow a similar digital pathology to that of micetimes, but with an even longer period between death and zombification. In this case, Wayback Machine shows that the site was born in mid-2002 and was the web platform of “Robert Wood Brokers, Inc”, a real US-based company whose site at the time claimed that ‘It provided services for the’ real estate needs of people living in the Metro Atlanta area and moving to and from. The website was either discontinued or moved to another domain in late 2007, before sitting idle for more than a decade according to Wayback Machine. Then in 2018, the site was revived and titled “RWB News – News of the World” with a similar cast of automatically translated stories ranging from clickbait to plays with pro-Kremlin narratives like the one titled “Five Matters In Russia Are Far Better Than the United States.
These two areas have topped the web for a variety of European security topics, particularly energy and geopolitical issues involving Russia. There are many other domains that exhibit these similar characteristics: original text that has apparently been automatically translated into English, no human operators or apparent journalists on the site, and appearing on domains that were created for entirely different purposes. Others that appear to exhibit these zombified characteristics include once legitimate web addresses for a Texas-based order of Catholic nuns, a German professional photography website, and a Mumbai-based high conductivity copper terminal supplier. It is not known if these sites are in fact part of a coordinated network and who can create them initially, but their commonalities are striking, sometimes containing identical articles in several areas.
Also of concern: These sites have been taken over from time to time by legitimate news organizations, creating the possibility that their false stories will be laundered in the legitimate news stream. For example, the Ukrainian Kyiv Post has linked to a few micetime articles that appear to contain fairly ordinary Ukrainian pop culture reporting, like this 2017 rerun of a creative break that a Ukrainian group was planning to take that year. The CrowdTangle social media monitoring platform also shows how articles on these sites have been disseminated by legitimate accounts. This includes micetimes articles shared on Facebook by government and organization accounts, including the Finnish Embassy in Singapore, the Slovenian Consulate in South Australia, and the Romanian-American Chamber of Commerce. While these are benign results, where in each case the articles shared do not appear to have been targeted pieces of disinformation, the incident reveals the potential for a wider impact if a disinformation narrative were accidentally magnified to the place.
It remains to be seen how zombie disinformation websites might be used in future information warfare scenarios, but the potential of using them in coordinated action is troubling. Imagine if in an election period, instead of those sites spreading a large mix of disparate stories in which they only returned on certain keyword searches (as they are now), they were used more like a swarm, all simultaneously pushing the same false questioning of history, for example the legitimacy of an election. Given their ability to play on search engine results, they can clog the news search results for certain keywords with so many similar fake stories that it at least temporarily creates mass confusion. The range of situations in which such an attack could be used by a range of malicious actors around the world is wide and the impact could be significant. It is therefore essential that the zombie phenomenon be included in digital disinformation tracking studies so that we can better prepare ourselves in the event that they are ever triggered as a tool of a wider influence campaign. Until then – unless your dated Space Jam site is still performing so well, you might want to verify that your old homepage hasn’t turned into the next dead misinformation.
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