On January 18, 2022, OpenFacto published the first results of its investigation into InfoRos, an « information agency » suspected of acting on behalf of Russian military intelligence, the GRU. Our investigation focused on a network of a thousand Russian-speaking websites created and maintained by InfoRos to spread patriotic and anti-Western rhetoric among the Russian population. This galaxy of portals targeted localities throughout Russia, but also specific communities, including ethnic and religious minorities living in Crimea.
OpenFacto has continued its investigations into lnfoRos, and today releases a second report on the Russian agency’s digital operations. Focusing on old InfoRos related domain names, basic heuristics helped us identify nearly 600 new portals administered by InfoRos since the year 2000. This new investigation brings the total number of domain names linked to the agency to 1 945.
While most of them were used to establish a local informational anchor in Russia, OpenFacto discovered several networks of sites that sought to influence the politics of foreign countries or support the diplomatic, economic, and military interests of the Russian government. Compared to the local websites described in our first report, the techniques of influence employed by these networks are radically more pernicious: InfoRos has, among other things, supported secessionist political parties in countries of the post-Soviet space, taken advantage of historical or ethnic conflicts to maintain Moscow’s hold in conflict zones, and financed competitions and conferences abroad to promote cooperation with Russia. At the same time, the agency has repeatedly hammered home to the Russian population and its new allies that the « West » is hypocritical, threatening, but in the process of giving way to new centers of power, of which Russia would be one of the main representatives.
To do so, InfoRos relied on local structures and agents of influence from the targeted countries, who organized physical events and promoted Russian positions to international organizations or their own authorities. The agency also hired Western nationals who sympathized to the Russian cause to create and disseminate content that was favorable to the editorial line prescribed by the Russian government. The speeches were deliberately directed towards audiences considered easily influenced, such as young people and victims of armed conflicts.
In the context of the invasion of Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24, 2022, this historical approach sheds a harsh light on the digital influence strategy of the GRU since the early 2000s. Over 20 years, InfoRos has woven a gigantic web of sites designed to support the Russian government’s strategic interests, regularly evolved its objectives, its discourse, and its methods of influence. Despite the numerous publications on its malicious activities, the Russian agency currently continues to register domain names and to exploit social networks to manipulate the narrative in the media, more particularly by trying to discredit the Kyiv government and the assistance it receives from Western countries.
Before presenting the main historical networks, we will first retrace the course of InfoRos’ activities from the end of January to March 2022, and with good reason. The agency seems to have reacted to the publication of our first investigation, and since then has dismantled a significant part of its infrastructure. This reaction suggests that InfoRos has attempted to limit the public exposure of its targeting of the Russian population. To conclude, we intend to return to two aspects of InfoRos’ work that were discussed in the January report, but on which our new investigations have shed a new light: the creation of domain names for commercial purposes, and the geographical distribution of local web-sites in Russia.