The staples of Russian misinformation campaigns—fake news and social media propaganda—are turning up in a new place: the private sector. For a small fee, companies can pay Russian operatives to boost their image or smear their competitors, employing some of the same tactics used by the Kremlin to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
To prove it, a young cyber-security company in Massachusetts called Recorded Future created a fake U.K. company, then hired two Russian public relations firms to wage information warfare on the company’s behalf. One firm was tasked with promoting the company through the generation of seemingly legitimate news articles; another was ordered to tear down its reputation in the same manner.
The firms successfully placed a total of four articles, including one that appeared in a newspaper that has been published for nearly a century, according to evidence that Recorded Future shared with Fortune. The disinformation campaigns can still be found online.
The range of services offered by the Russian PR firms is startling. Not only do the firms deploy fake accounts on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, but they offer a service to plant news articles in English-language media outlets.
According to a rate card reviewed by Fortune, fees begin at $180 to plant an article on a website such as CheapAutoInsurance.com and rise to $600 to plant an article in a regional news publication like Northern Ireland’s Love Belfast. But it doesn’t stop there. Well-known, prestigious journalism outlets also feature on the list, with hefty prices to match:
- Reuters: $8,360
- Wallpaper*: $8,404
- Mashable: $13,370
- Financial Times: $49,440
Since Recorded Future intended only to test the efficacy of the fake news service, it paid the two Russian PR firms to plant articles about its fictitious company in lower-tier publications. Recorded Future asked Fortune not to name the compromised publications in order to avoid compromising the identity of its undercover analysts who engaged the Russian firms.
Fortune, however, reviewed the planted articles and found that all were written in the manner of conventional news articles and contain no hints that they were published on behalf of Russian propagandists. In one case, the planted article was not journalistic but “sponsored,” suggesting the firm placed the story through the publication’s commercial staff.
It is not clear how the PR firms actually planted the articles. According to Roman Sannikov, director of analysts at Recorded Future, the Russian firms employ journalists, editors, translators, search engine optimization (SEO) specialists, and hackers. Based on conversations with the firms, he believes they pay corrupt journalists or writers to place the stories.
Recorded Future says its undercover analysts discovered the firms on criminal marketing sites on the so-called dark web.
Recorded Future did not obtain evidence that the Russian PR firms are actually able to infiltrate the pricier publications listed on the rate card. The PR firms claim they possess this capability but refused to provide proof to Recorded Future’s agents, citing client confidentiality, says Sannikov.
In a statement to Fortune, Reuters said it has stringent practices in place to ensure its coverage is free of misinformation. Wallpaper* stated it has no reason to believe the Russian firms have planted content with the publication, and that it is seeking legal counsel on the matter. Mashable and the Financial Times did not respond to Fortune inquiry.
Even if the Russian firms are only able to penetrate lesser-known publications, the effect on companies targeted by fake articles could be significant. Many readers rely on regional news outlets for information and wouldn’t expect them to be targeted by malicious actors as aggressively as a national news outlet.
The disinformation threat is amplified by the use of social media. Both propaganda campaigns purchased by Recorded Future involved the use of accounts on Facebook and another popular social network, some with hundreds of followers, to share the commissioned fake stories. One campaign also shared the stories on LinkedIn.
Recorded Future says the Russian PR firms also offered to extend the campaigns to other social media platforms, including Instagram and TripAdvisor.
In a statement, LinkedIn said it enforces its policies that ban fake accounts and fraudulent activities. TripAdvisor said that it takes similar actions, and that it is well aware such propaganda activity is “disproportionately coming out of Russia.” Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not respond to requests for comment.
While social media companies have made it much harder for average people to create networks of fake accounts in the wake of the 2016 election, Sannikov says professional hackers like those employed at the Russian PR companies are able to circumvent the companies’ controls.
The Russian PR firms’ tactics—call it “disinformation as a service”—are not limited to media propaganda. One of the firms hired by Recorded Future, which spread stories that the fictitious company had mistreated its employees, offered a further service for filing false accusations with law enforcement and tax authorities. (Recorded Future declined to engage it.)
The total cost of the misinformation campaigns that Recorded Future engaged with amounted to just $6,050, a figure well within reach of small businesses like restaurants or retail stores looking to harm their competitors.
According to Sannikov, the Russian firms’ representatives are communicative and customer-focused, not unlike those of a legitimate PR agency.
“If you have a competitor down the block and you want to damage them, 10 years ago you hired someone to knock their website offline. Now, these services can post negative reviews and write articles in media about them,” says Sannikov, adding that both campaigns took only weeks to carry out.
The company on Monday published a report titled “The Price of Influence: Disinformation in the Private Sector” that provides more details about its campaign.
A Problem That Is “Morphing and Proliferating”
Companies spreading dirt about each other in the media is hardly a new tactic in the world of conventional public relations, of course. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal last week reported that a recent grassroots campaign to oppose Amazon was funded and run by rivals Wal-Mart and Oracle.
But the Russian PR firms’ services are set apart by their blatant disregard for media ethics. (Why shape public opinion when you can fabricate it?) Their ready access to anyone with a few thousand dollars in their bank account could present a new challenge to companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, from which Congress has already demanded explanation for what they are doing to address the “weaponization” of social networks.
Paul Barrett, a New York University law professor who recently published a widely-cited report urging technology companies to do more to police their platforms, describes for-profit disinformation services as troubling.
“The difficulty is these threats are morphing and proliferating,” Barrett tells Fortune. “My impression is that the tech companies are trying in good faith to protect their users, but the new threats are challenging even for someone with Facebook’s technological prowess.”
Disinformation services appear to be a growing problem. In June, Wired magazine reported how tech incubator Jigsaw—a division of Google parent company Alphabet—purchased a Russian troll-for-hire campaign to harass a fictitious pro-democracy activist group it had created. The campaign, which took place on Twitter and was part of broader research into state-sponsored disinformation, cost only $250.
Three months before that, Facebook announced it would purge hundreds of fake accounts belonging to an Israeli company called the Archimedes Group. The group ran disinformation-for-profit campaigns that sought to affect political sentiment in dozens of countries in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. And last week, Oxford University researchers reported that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns had doubled in the last two years to more than 70.
Ironically, says Sannikov, the Russian PR firms contracted by Recorded Future appear to have leveraged the enormous publicity surrounding the Kremlin’s 2016 disinformation campaigns in order to build out for-profit ventures. While the firms have offered similar services in Russia for years, he says, the publicity surrounding the U.S. election inspired them to expand to new markets in the West.
That such efforts now have the potential to harm private businesses or individuals is of particular concern, says Christopher Ahlberg, Recorded Future’s chief executive: “The perceived impact of these threats cannot be understated.”