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Fake news sites steal media brand names

September 3, 2022

The website looks authentic, but it isn't. Fake news sites showing well-known media brand names are acting as vehicles for Russian propaganda, among other things.

These days it is getting increasingly difficult to tell real from fake news
These days it is getting increasingly difficult to tell real from fake newsImage: M. Gann/picture alliance/blickwinkel/McPHOTO

A teenager falls off his bike and dies because he didn't see potholes in the dark without street lights. Ukrainians are allegedly buying apartments in Russia with aid money from Europe. Or there's a strange gas explosion in a school in the German city of Bremen caused by savings measures.

All of these fake reports have circulated online in the past few days. What is special about them is this: They appeared on websites closely resembling those of German news outlets such as spiegel.de, welt.de, bild.de and t-online. It is often barely possible to tell the difference from the original.

Misusing trusted brands

"Imitating websites and spreading fake news and propaganda via apparently reputable media outlets whose name has been misused is something that has not yet existed in this form in Germany," said Felix Kartte, head of Reset, an NGO that campaigns for the regulation of tech companies.

The journalist Lars Wienand, who exposed the most recent pro-Russian disinformation campaign in an article for t-online, found more than 30 such faked sites, and the German outlet succeeded in putting an end to the phenomenon relatively quickly.

"We saw it on August 26 and wrote to the server in the Netherlands straightaway. On August 29, the site had disappeared," Wienand told DW. "But it popped up again in Colombia shortly afterward."

The site has since been removed from the web there as well. "The colleagues were able to solve the problem with the help of the IT service company Cloudflare and the company with which the site had been registered," Wienand said.

Fact check: How do I spot fake news?

No site notice, no contact

Unfortunately, such successes are rare. Many media outlets do not manage to contact the websites in question. "Because faked websites basically never have a site notice," says Weinand, there are no addresses or people to contact. And when the host is outside Europe, he said, any legal action is mostly in vain.

That is also the experience of publisher Axel Springer, which runs two of Germany's biggest daily newspapers, Die Welt and Bild. "Unfortunately, the instigators can almost never be pinned down," the company said in a statement. "As a rule, we examine whether anything can be done legally and, depending on the prospects of success, initiate our own proceedings or instruct external law offices to enforce our demands."

The publisher of Germany's Der Spiegel reached out to its readers directly, informing them in an article about the almost perfectly faked news websites with pro-Russian propaganda using the Spiegel design.

"Normally, we are very reticent about reporting on imitated websites because there are usually dubious, commercially motivated interests behind them that we do not want to reward by attracting our readers to them," the publishing house said. But it added that in the case of this current fake news campaign, the need to provide information took precedence.

EU Commissioner for Competition Policy Margrethe Vestager wants to better regulate online platfroms
EU Commissioner for Competition Policy Margrethe Vestager wants to better regulate online platfromsImage: Olivier Matthys/AP/picture alliance

Salvation through the 'Digital Services Act'?

This powerlessness to act in the face of constant fake-news waves on the internet could soon be over, says expert Felix Kartte. These practices would be "a good place to apply the Digital Services Act (DSA)," he said.

This act, passed in July this year by the European Parliament, requires platforms, among other things, to ratchet up their prevention and monitoring of, and reactions to, disinformation campaigns. It will probably go into force in the fall and must then be implemented by the EU member states.

Kartte is certain that "if the DSA was already in force, media outlets would have more effective ways to lodge complaints against the platforms, and the fake sites would have been taken down." He says media outlets are interested in the measure being implemented, as it would mean that fake sites would be deleted more quickly and that their effect would be curtailed in scope.

Evading regulators

Spiegel hopes the DSA will "make it easier to enforce the law with regard to content shared over major platforms."

The past had, however, shown time and time again that "distributors of illegal content usually find ways to keep reaching their audiences while evading regulators."

Even though Germany has never before experienced such a wave of fake reports circulated via phony websites, disinformation is hardly a new phenomenon in Europe. Back in 2018, a major Swedish fact-checking platform, established by five publishing houses, was imitated by a fraudulent website of the same appearance.

Josef Holnburger of Cemas, an organization that analyzes conspiracy theories and far-right content, argues that individuals who run disinformation campaigns should be banned from social media platfroms.

"Deplatforming works! Removing bad actors from platforms like YouTube means reducing their reach," says Holnburger. Adding that while they may set up new accounts on other platforms, in most cases, they will then be sharing these with a much smaller group of like-minded users only.

This article was translated from German