by Karin Kőváry Sólymos, ICJK.sk, Josef Slerka, Investigace.cz, Julia Dauksza, Anna Gielewska, Frontstory.pl
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as we found out, NewsFront has been playing a significant role in spreading anti-Ukrainian narratives in some Visegrad countries – especially in Slovakia. A complex redistribution scheme allows Kremlin propaganda to avoid bans and reach audiences in the region.
In early 2014, as Russian troops were preparing to annex Crimea, a group of masked gunmen in military uniforms stormed the headquarters of the Crimean Centre for Investigative Journalism in the peninsula’s capital. Led by one Konstantin Knyrik, they occupied its offices, forcibly expelled the centre’s journalists, and confiscated their equipment. On the ruins of the region’s leading independent news source, they built a disinformation channel that in recent years has become a multilingual mouthpiece for the Kremlin – NewsFront. According to US intelligence and a number of disinformation researchers, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the FSB, is linked to NewsFront and its disinformation machine. Since 2014, it has become one of the key channels spreading Russian propaganda.
At first glance, NewsFront looks like a legitimate news website. There is no visible indication that it is a disinformation website masquerading as an “independent news outlet.” However, its content consists of hoaxes and conspiracy theories of the coarsest grain.
NewsFront articles are available on the internet in Slovak, Polish, and formerly also in Hungarian. Its website has a total of 11 language versions. Some of them also have a dedicated Telegram channel. According to a 2018 investigation by Coda, at that time NewsFront had ten employees and at least 100 contributors worldwide.
Who are these people? On the NewsFront website we can only find the name of the head of the “NewsFront Agency,” Konstantin Knyrik. This outlet publishes articles exclusively without crediting the authors.
Knyrik told the state news agency Novorossiya that the idea of founding NewsFront was born “completely spontaneously.” Its initial aim was to provide informational support for Russian efforts to annex the Crimean peninsula. The first step was supposedly to take control of the “House of Unions,” the headquarters of the Crimean Centre for Investigative Journalism.
After the violent assault and occupation of the building, Knyrik (the man in the black coat in the photo) announced that the building would now be the headquarters of the Crimean Front militia. Knyrik described the Crimean Centre for Investigative Journalism as an “American press centre” from where “no true information comes.” However, he added that the staff of this organization were offered to return to work if they agreed to report on events “fairly and truthfully.” These journalists, however, quickly understood what direction this new “medium” would be taking and fled.
After the 2014 takeover, the website was renamed NewsFront, which became a multilingual part of the Kremlin’s disinformation ecosystem, similar to the Russian state news agency Sputnik. Unlike Sputnik or Russia Today, however, NewsFront is not a state-funded entity.
The NewsFront Ltd. media group was registered as a private company in early 2015, a year after the annexation of Crimea. According to the latest available data from March 2022, Russian state licenses to operate the news agency were obtained as early as June 2015. In February 2017, a license to operate a TV channel was added.
Lozanova is allegedly the wife of Mikhail Synelin, who has held various positions in the Russian government in the past. He was also deputy chairman of the Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs, a state-owned corporation. He is often referred to as the co-founder of NewsFront. It has also been reported several times that he appeared in the business register as the official founder of the company.
According to SBIS.ru, NewsFront’s revenues and profit have increased significantly compared to previous years. Last year, the agency’s profits were estimated to be around 63,000 euros.
From where though does NewFront draw the financial resources to operate its extensive “news” portfolio? Knyrik told Coda that the organization is funded solely by “donations from his family [and] friends and income from other business activities.” However, an interesting piece of the puzzle was provided by a former employee of the German edition of NewsFront, who revealed to Zeit that funds making up “a large part of the budget” were allocated to him directly by Russian security services.
According to the independent Russian media outlet ZnakIn, in 2016 NewsFront received a presidential grant of 3 million rubles (approximately 47,000 euros) through the Global Information Technologies civic association.
Kremlin propaganda and conspiracies
When NewsFront was launched, its main goal was to spread anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian disinformation narratives regarding the War in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Some of the earliest hoaxes it published reappeared eight years later to serve as a pretext for Russian aggression against Ukraine.
These include, for example, the false claim that Ukraine is run by fascists and Nazis, that ethnic cleansing is taking place in the east of the country, or that Ukraine as a country does not exist at all. Another popular conspiracy theory was that the United States was funding biolabs in Ukraine, a story that the Slovak version of NewsFront returned to in July of this year.
NewsFront plays a prominent role in spreading disinformation in connection with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. In doing so, it uses the exact same vocabulary and narrative of the Kremlin, writing about “Ukronazis” and the fascist Ukrainian state that needs to be denazified. There are also articles about the Nazis from the Azov Regiment.
However, this pro-Kremlin website does not only push disinformation about Ukraine and Russia. It also plays a prominent role in spreading lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the very beginning of the global spread of the coronavirus, NewsFront published a false claim that the virus had been created by the United States as a biological weapon and tested on the populations of Ukraine and China. In addition, the United States was also supposed to have developed bacteriological weapons specifically targeted at certain ethnic groups.
Yet another conspiracy promoted by NewsFront is that the vaccine contains a brain-weakening substance or a gene causing infertility in women, “all possible for the goal of total population control or reduction.”
At first glance, NewsFront websites teem with anti-Western and pro-Kremlin disinformation. There is no shortage of classic hoaxes related to the supposed Islamization of the UK, Novichok being developed by the Americans, or NATO creating a “hotbed of instability in Europe.” It is a telling figure that the European project EUvsDisinfo has, since 2015, debunked a total of more than 800 false claims originating from the NewsFront website.
Russian FSB’s ties with NewsFront
In April 2021, the US Department of the Treasury designated NewsFront, along with three other portals, as a site controlled directly or indirectly by Russian intelligence. According to the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Crimea-based agency was one of the entities that “attempted to influence the 2020 US presidential election at the direction of Russian government leadership.” A former employee of the German NewsFront also spoke of links to Russian intelligence.
In an April 2021 press release the OFAC claimed that the FSB directly operates disinformation channels. One of them, NewsFront, works with FSB officers to coordinate narratives and, according to US authorities, acts directly on behalf of Russian intelligence. “NewsFront has also been used to spread false information about the COVID-19 vaccine, further demonstrating the irresponsible and reckless actions of Russian disinformation websites,” the press release said.
A year later, shortly after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States imposed sanctions on 11 disinformation channels run by and for Russian leaders. The reason given was “the dissemination of fake news intended to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
As part of this sanctions package, the OFAC took action against three NewsFront employees: NewsFront’s director and founder Konstantin Knyrik, who “has written and published articles at the behest of FSB officers and obtained funding for NewsFront from its financial sponsor”; NewsFront co-founder Mikhail Sinelin; and NewsFront deputy director Yevgeny Glotov, who “supported NewsFront’s attempts to establish alternate mediums in order to evade sanctions.” Sanctioned individuals and entities had their assets frozen in the US.
Knyrik is also on the European Union and Canadian sanctions lists. According to the EU Council’s decision, Knyrik “has actively supported and implemented measures and policies that undermine the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine and further destabilize it.” Knyrik is also banned from entering Germany for “working for Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine,” according to Germany’s Zeit.
Ban on social networks
Even before the US sanctions, Facebook had already removed 140 entities linked to the Russian propaganda portals NewsFront and SouthFront in late April 2020 as part of a larger action. According to the DFRLab, a significant number of them had clear links to these sites.
Facebook officials stated that “coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB)” was the reason for the deletion. According to the social media giant’s justification, “They used fake accounts to post their content and manage Groups and Pages posing as independent news entities in the regions they targeted. This network posted about geopolitical and local news including topics such as the military conflict in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war, the annexation of Crimea, NATO, US elections, and more recently the coronavirus pandemic. Our investigation linked this activity to individuals in Russia and Donbass, and two media organizations in Crimea — NewsFront and SouthFront.”
Meta’s official report also specified the languages in which this coordinated foreign behaviour took place. According to the report, the people behind the activities shared posts in Russian, English, German, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Serbian, Georgian, Indonesian, and Farsi, targeting a wide range of regions around the world.
During 2020, NewsFront’s content was blocked not only by Facebook, but also by YouTube. At the time, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took to Twitter to respond directly to Google’s move. It described the blocking of NewsFront, AnnaNews, and Krym24 as “another act of discrimination against Russian-language media.”
NewsFront’s name has also come up in connection with two anti-Ukrainian “covert influence operations” linked to Russia. The accounts associated with these operations were removed from Facebook and Twitter a few days after the Russian invasion began. Meta’s head of security policy said that “the larger of the two disinformation groups operated in Russia, as well as in the Russian-dominated Donbas and Crimea regions of Ukraine.”
Circumventing social networking measures
The blocking of NewsFront on Facebook and Twitter entailed more than just making its accounts unavailable. Its domains have also been blacklisted. In practice, this means that, for example, when trying to share a link to this website, an error message is displayed stating that the shared link is in violation of Facebook’s community standards. This prohibition also applies to subdomains of the page.
The operators of NewsFront, however, have come up with a way to avoid the ban. According to security experts, it started using a network of “mirror sites” – websites that are identical to the original NewsFront website, but on innocuous-sounding domains.
The bans are also circumvented by a close network of online individuals whose sole job is to forward articles from NewsFront’s mirror sites. They use both real and fake accounts. According to experts, they are the “engine of NewsFront’s activity.”
According to an ASD analysis from early last year, “online individuals who appear to be affiliated with NewsFront regularly share content to at least 235 Facebook groups with the potential to reach more than 3.4 million people in seven languages (Bulgarian, French, Georgian, German, Russian, Slovak, and Spanish).” Based on NewsFront’s increased activity since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this figure could be even higher.
How NewsFront avoids bans in the Visegrad
Based on our analysis of Facebook, there are still pages that directly distribute NewsFront articles. In the Slovak case, we found two accounts that take entire passages from the articles of the Slovak version of the site without giving the web address – to avoid possible blocking. The names of these “proxy” profiles on Facebook are very similar to “NewsFront.” Although the Facebook accounts themselves do not have a large number of followers, one of them has a linked group spreading disinformation, in which posts from politicians from the Republika Party also appear.
NewsFront also circumvents the block on YouTube by uploading videos to several anonymous channels. The fact that they are “agency” material is only indicated by a watermark in the video. On a separate YouTube channel we can also find content that is translated into Slovak.
While NewsFront-linked FB pages are blocked, the content is also distributed through Telegram channels. NewsFront website and most of its language versions remain active. Looking at the NewsFront domain data on Domaintools does not tell us much. The vast majority of the information is non-public with the disclaimer “redacted for privacy.” From the limited data, however, it is clear that the site’s domain is registered in Russia – more specifically to an IP location in Moscow, while NewsFront’s official address is listed as Crimea. The phone number of the website administrator also appears next to the area code of the Russian capital. All subpages, i.e., language versions, run on the same domain.
Based on publicly available data from the Wayback Machine, the Slovak subpage of NewsFront became active in the first half of 2020. From the beginning, it has shared several posts a day. The main topics are Ukraine, Russia, and the United States. The website also posts articles on domestic Slovak politics, which proves that it is not just translating Russian texts into Slovak but also publishing content written directly for Slovak readers. According to an analysis conducted by EUvsDisinfo, NewsFront adapts its content for different European audiences.
Despite being active for several years, it is a little-known actor on the Slovak disinformation scene. The site does not mention who or what is behind its Slovak content. The texts are published exclusively without the authors being credited. The “Contact Us” section currently lists only NewsFront founder Konstantin Knyrik.
Although there is no Czech-language version of NewsFront, its content does reach a Czech audience. According to data from SimilarWeb, a web traffic analysis service, the Slovak-language version of NewsFront receives around half a million visits per month, almost three-quarters of which come from Slovakia and one-quarter from the Czech Republic.
Although Slovaks and Czechs are generally unaware of the NewsFront brand, its content can be found on several Slovak and Czech disinformation sites. It is most often used as a source by Slovanské Noviny, which directly lists NewsFront as a partner on its website. Both Slovak and Czech articles are published on this platform.
A better-known redistributor of NewsFront’s content is Infovojna.sk (including its mirror domain sloboda-slova.sk), which was blocked in March 2022 by the National Security Office due to problematic content. It linked to NewsFront articles more than 3,500 times. Even a mainstream news outlet took over an entire article from NewsFront back in 2018, titled “Alexander Rogers: The occupation, Ukrainians, must be earned.”
A huge “re-sharer” is the Slovak oral.sk disinformation website. It contains around 10,000 hyperlinks to NewsFront. Infosecurity.sk, an organization that surveys disinformation and hybrid threats, used publicly available information to discover that oral.sk “produces almost no articles of its own, and daily takes over and shares several dozen contributions from various disinformation and conspiracy websites.” The site has also promoted the qanon.sk website in the past. This disinformation movement also uses the Russian invasion of Ukraine as part of its conspiracy.
Links to the Czech disinformation scene are indicated by more than just web traffic data; several Czech conspiracy and disinformation servers have shared links to the Slovak version of the NewsFront site. Among the most visited is Protiproud, where articles from NewsFront became the basis for texts such as “Europe before the Last Red Line.” According to the Czech Military Intelligence, the Protiproud server is involved in hybrid activities in favor of Russia, and its funding was linked to investments from Belarus and Russia. Protiproud is one of the most visited Czech disinformation and conspiracy sites as found out by Investigace.cz.
Other sites where articles and links from the Slovak version of NewsFront can be found include CZ 24, Czech Free Press, České zprávy (formerly Česko Aktuálně), Pokec 24, Infokurýr, and Nepodvolení. However, links to NewsFront articles are also sporadically posted on various discussion forums such as Truck Forum, Zdraví A-Z, and eMimino.
Although NewsFront does not operate a Czech website, it has probably tried to expand into the Czech disinformation scene in recent months. A few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a channel called “Czech Republic NEWS-FRONT.INFO” appeared on the Telegram app. But it was active for only a few days, and the number of followers did not exceed 100.
The short life of Polish NewsFront
The NewsFront Poland website debuted on 20 September 2021, soon after the Zapad maneuvers brought the relocation of Russian troops to the borders of Ukraine and in the middle of the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. A clearly perfect window of opportunity for Russian propaganda was not seized: NewsFront’s Polish presence was short-lived. As late as in March 2022, it was blocked by Polish internet providers at the request of the Polish Internal Security Agency, together with other websites and blogs commonly considered pro-Russian. Currently, only VPN users can access it, which has significantly weakened its reach.
Another limitation that possibly hindered NewsFront’s performance in Poland seems to be the fact that the operators apparently did not manage to expand the network of sites serving as mirrors or disseminating its content. While examining the backlinks behind the Polish domain, we have found mostly web forums with low authority. Even the Polish-speaking NewsFront site’s Telegram account – founded in March – has opted out of linking to the original page.
Despite its limited impact in Poland, the website’s operators still produce messages in Polish, although with a much lower frequency than their Slovak counterparts. By the end of July 2022, the website had published over 3,000 articles from the Russian point of view.
Apparently, this site is still capable of attracting an audience despite being blocked. In June, the website registered 33,400 total visits (compared to 419,800 in Slovakia). Surprisingly, 92% of them seem to come from Germany.
The Polish version of NewsFront has a unique structure compared to other language versions. From the very beginning, the website has included a special section titled “This day in history.” We did not find a similar format on other NewsFront pages. It seems this was the idea of the Polish website operators. This section published only two original texts by an anonymous author – about the Battle of Poitiers and the Great Patriotic War. The rest of the texts are reprints of historical articles from Strajk.eu and Myśl Polska. In total, we found that over 7% of all content published by NewsFront is reprinted from Myśl Polska.
The latter portal is a significant content provider; our analysis of NewsFront’s content shows that the Polish version has reprinted over 200 articles originally published in Myśl Polska. At least 10 articles from Myśl Polska have also been translated into Russian and published on the Russian version of NewsFront. The texts are stamped with a statement that they do not always represent the views of the editors: “We provide access to the most interesting articles and opinions from various sites and sources (trustworthy) that reflect various aspects of reality,” claims the anonymous editor.
How trustworthy is Myśl Polska and why do the operators of the Polish NewsFront like it so much?
It is a weekly magazine praising Putin, headed by the nationalist Jan Engelgard, author of the book The Virus of Russophobia and a commentator on a disinformation channel on YouTube.
The Myśl Polska website is recognized as one of the pro-Russian outlets on the Polish internet. One of its well-known columnists is Mateusz Piskorski, a former Polish MP accused in 2016 of spying for Russia and China. Piskorski was also a founder and leader of the pro-Kremlin party Zmiana and a founder of the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (into whose account 21,000 euros were allegedly transferred from Russia, according to the OCCRP investigation “Laundromat”).
Strajk.eu, to which the Polish NewsFront site linked 13 times, is a left-wing website with a long pro-Russian history. Some of its editors even took part in Kremlin-friendly election observation missions in Central Africa and Madagascar (organized by Piskorski’s ECAG), as a Vsquare investigation revealed.
While the Polish version of NewsFront mostly linked to other pro-Russian sites and expert blogs, it also used content from mainstream media. This tactic was used by other pro-Kremlin outlets (i.e., Polish Sputnik) to legitimize their content and reach a broader audience.
Hungary: A dead project?
In the summer of 2018, a Hungarian website with a proven and open Russian background, Hídfő, went silent. A few weeks later, the first Hungarian NewsFront article appeared.
Initially, the articles published in the Hungarian version of NewsFront focused almost exclusively on Ukraine, but soon there were other topics “closer” to Hungarian readers. In 2019, one such topic was migration, according to Átlátszó. Moreover, the most frequently discussed texts were those from the propaganda press that expressed the positions of Viktor Orbán’s government.
The Hungarian investigative portal also noticed that articles that did not quote the Hungarian press were often written in strange Hungarian. The time of publication showed an hour too late, which suggests they were published in Moscow time. According to Átlátszó, it was also noticeable that the NewsFront site used the “Pt Sans” font, which was introduced in 2009. It was commissioned by the Russian Ministry of Communications to mark the 300th anniversary of Tsar Peter the Great’s font reform.
The Disinformation Resilience Index 2021 report identifies Hungary’s NewsFront as the country’s most prominent “fringe conspiracy media.” However, the influence of so-called fringe pro-Kremlin disinformation websites remains limited “as is the case with smaller reaching online groupings in support of Russia, Belarus and the two Russian proxy states in Donbas.”
According to experts from the Political Capital think tank, the Hungarian NewsFront “informs its readers about Ukraine from a number of Russian or East Ukrainian separatist ‘sources’ such as donbasstoday.ru, newsua.ru or ya-turbo.ru, playing a key role in the ‘import’ of Russian-language disinformation content into Hungary.”
Similarly to other NewsFront language versions, the Hungarian edition published articles without crediting the authors. However, Hungarian disinformation experts have pointed out – similarly to Átlátszó – that “the occasionally poor quality of grammar and spelling in some Hungarian articles certainly suggest it is run by foreigners.” Based on an advert that appeared on the site in around 2018, this is not inconceivable. Through it, the portal sought “translators, authors and loud trumpets,” but what is very telling is that the text of the call itself is grammatically incorrect.
Sándor Csikós, who has actively spread Russian propaganda in the past, also appeared on the site. According to the findings of Hungarian journalists András Dezső and Szabolcs Panyi, he is a former diplomat from the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He studied at Moscow’s elite MGIMO University and worked at the ministry from 1974 until his retirement in the summer of 2013. He also visited the Donetsk region in 2019. He wrote about his experiences for the Hungarian NewsFront.
Until recently, NewsFront published articles on its Hungarian subpage quite systematically. However, on 31 October 2021, the site went silent; the reason is unknown.
Anastasiia Morozova, Frontstory.pl, contributed to the reporting.