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German government says closely examining reports of Russian fake news campaigns

BERLIN (Reuters) - German government officials on Monday said they were carefully examining an unprecedented proliferation of fake news items amid intelligence agency reports of Russian efforts to influence the country’s parliamentary election in September.

A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

The BfV domestic intelligence agency also confirmed that a December cyber attack against the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) used the same tools seen in a 2015 hack of the German parliament that was attributed to the APT28 Russian hacking group.

Russia denies being involved in any cyber warfare targeting Western governments and institutions.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany would use all possible means to investigate the spread of fake news on the Internet, adding the best response was greater transparency.

“We are dealing with a phenomenon of a dimension that we have not seen before,” Seibert told a regular government news briefing.

Last month BfV said it had seen a wide variety of Russian propaganda tools and “enormous use of financial resources” to carry out disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilizing the German government.

The OSCE, whose 57 members include most European nations, Russia and the United States, also said last month it had been the target of a cyber attack, but declined to comment on a report in French newspaper Le Monde that it was launched by APT28.

Commenting on the cyber attacks, German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaeffer said: “We take the incidents related to possible hacking attacks against the OSCE very seriously, and we also take other cases very seriously.”

“It is obvious that everything must be done to prevent and impede such incidents as much as possible in our sphere, in our domain,” he told the same news briefing.

Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the BfV intelligence agency, told Germany’s DPA news agency at the weekend that the agency’s analysis showed the OSCE hack had been conducted using the same “attack infrastructure” as the Bundestag hack blamed on APT28. A spokesman for the agency confirmed the remarks.

The Kremlin denounced on Monday a U.S. intelligence report that Russia had tried to influence the U.S. election in favor of Republican Donald Trump, and said no evidence had been produced to show Russian officials were involved.

German officials said Berlin had looked into creating a separate branch of the 500-person government press office that would specifically evaluate and respond to fake news items.

But that effort is in the early stages and may not result in any concrete steps given concerns about the government appearing to try to manage news in an election year, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative bloc hope to win a fourth four-year term in September. Merkel has strongly criticized Russia’s actions in the Ukraine crisis and led the push for European Union sanctions against Moscow.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Joseph Nasr and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Gareth Jones