GeoEdge Intercepts a Pro-Russian Disinformation Campaign Targeting US Users With an Inflammatory Anti-US Campaign
Recently, GeoEdge uncovered an inflammatory pro-Russian ad campaign that hit US premium publisher sites mimicking Communist propaganda posters. The creatives feature figures including Lenin, Mao, and Putin, with lettering stylized to call to mind Cyrillic script and Chinese characters. The campaign advocates for ending democracy, furthering division in the US, and advancing the agendas of Russia, China, and Iran. GeoEdge research revealed that users were targeted with the inflammatory creatives primarily through Windows Chrome and iOS– and creatives were linked to the URL “Defeat-USA.com.”
External forces have long focused on undermining the US government and igniting political divides or instability in the United States. However, they have not been able to accomplish such deception at scale until the advent of digital advertising. Given the campaign’s anti-US messages, GeoEdge security researchers investigated the campaign’s origin to determine whether this is yet another Kremlin-led campaign.
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Fraudulent Behavior on the Rise
Over the past 24 months, publishers have faced an onslaught of fake and inflammatory ads in the ecosystem which typically follow a similar pattern. These ads begin with a clickbait-style creative, often use tabloid-style imagery or disinformation about a trending topic, and lead to a landing page containing more disinformation or content completely unrelated to the ad creative. Publishers have come to understand that much of this disinformation and propaganda comes from malicious international entities, many of whom may be related to foreign governments. Their consistent aim is to sow distrust in authorities and the media on the user’s home turf.
This ad campaign takes a page right out of the propaganda playbook, disorienting users and convincing them they’re under attack.
The State of Deception in Digital Advertising
The above tactic can be linked to recent mounting belief in conspiracy theories. As politics and public health policy have become deeply partisan and divisive in many countries, including the US, people increasingly fear infiltration by saboteurs from “the other side.”
Digital fraudsters have already proven that their malicious payloads need not be hidden within long strings of code in the ad’s creative. Today’s cyber-scammers use social engineering via salacious ad content to provoke users to click an ad willingly and fall into a web of deceit. Psychological vectors of attack are in vogue with malvertisers. Bad actors will always come up with a new vector when the industry focuses on a known vector. We can assume that bad actors’ psychological tactics will advance rapidly. We expect that the next round of malvertising and bad ads will closely resemble this campaign. Publishers must therefore ensure they have a solution in place agile enough to keep pace with the adversary.
Facing Advertising’s Newest Challenges
This scenario creates an opening for the programmatic ecosystem’s bad actors to rush in. Without real-time detection, it is nearly impossible to root out malicious or low-quality advertisers and creatives. Whether or not malicious actors fill this vacuum is up to publishers. Automated technology plays a key role in defending publishers and their end-users.
Disinformation through digital advertising plays into user mistrust — not merely mistrust in the publisher who hosted the ad, but a general sense of mistrust in the media. Add to that the fact that a typical user lacks an understanding of the programmatic market and will assume the publisher has explicitly approved any ads on their site. In these divisive times, this mistrust discourages users from engaging in otherwise high-quality and reliable media.
Publishers can’t sit by and let fraudsters and trolls drive away their audiences, decreasing monetization, and damaging loyal users’ lifetime value in the process.
Future-Proofing Ad Quality Control
Ready for the good news? Publishers can have explicit control over the ads on their sites without devoting endless work hours to the task, whether those ads come from programmatic or direct channels. As cyber scammers become increasingly sophisticated, publishers must take a more aggressive stance on inflammatory, political, and issue ads to eliminate misalignment with their brand and user experience. Publishers need the efficiency of an ad quality solution that can detect and flag or block bad ads in real-time before they reach the page. Publishers also require technology that will provide complete transparency into their inventory.
For maximum effectiveness, current ad quality solutions must incorporate both automation and an option for manual review. A transparency solution lets you stop dangerous, divisive, and offensive ads while streamlining adops efficiency.