WASHINGTON – Andrei Taranov, a board member of the Ukrainian public broadcasting company Saspilon, was sitting in his office last month when he saw a strange message under a television screen. It says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced his surrender.
Mr Taranov was shocked because there was no talk of surrender among journalists covering the attack in Russia. “There is no such thing in any journalistic circle,” he thought. “It looks absolutely contradictory.”
The message was fake, he quickly realized. It was planted by hackers on the live coverage of the media group Ukraine.
Since the Russian aggression began in late February, hackers have repeatedly vandalized social media accounts and broadcast systems of trusted information sources in Ukraine, such as government officials and prominent media outlets. They used their access to spread false messages that Ukraine was surrendering, sometimes using fake videos to bolster their claims.
And while there is no evidence that misinformation has any apparent impact on the conflict, experts say the intent of the hackers may not actually be to deceive anyone. Instead, the hackers are probably trying to erode confidence in Ukrainian institutions and show that the government and the media cannot be relied upon for information or to keep hackers out of their systems. The tactics reflect the tactics used in other Russian misleading campaigns, which focused on inciting divisions and cultural conflicts.
“You can create uncertainty, confusion and mistrust,” said Ben Reid, a director of the cybersecurity firm Mandiant. “It doesn’t have to be an intimate lesson to have some effect on the population; It destroys confidence in all messages. “
Facebook has launched a hacking campaign targeting military officials, including Belarusian state-sponsored hackers. Other cyber attacks, including against media outlets and telecommunication networks, have not yet been blamed on certain state actors.
However, Ukrainian officials suspect that Russia is behind the hacking and misinterpretation.
“Of course they are behind the attack,” said Victor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine’s cyber security agency, the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection.
“This is the first time in history that we are dealing with a conventional war and a cyber war at the same time,” said Mr Jora. “It completely changes our landscape for what is happening around Ukraine.”
Attempts to spread confusion about the Ukrainian surrender began just days after the Russian invasion. The hackers entered the Facebook accounts of high-profile Ukrainian military leaders and politicians, then used their access to post false messages announcing their surrender. They waved a white flag, along with some posts including videos of soldiers, falsely claiming that the footage depicted Ukrainian soldiers.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, says it quickly detected attacks and in some cases managed to prevent hackers from posting fake messages from compromised accounts. The hackers were linked to a group that security researchers call ghostwriters, Meta said, which is linked to Belarus.
Ghostwriters often target public figures in Europe, security researchers say, often for the purpose of pushing messages using compromised social media and email accounts that move away in support of NATO. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, according to researchers, the group has focused its efforts there.
“They are aligned with Russian goals,” Mr Reed said of the ghostwriter.
In mid-March, Ukrainian authorities detected another hacking operation that sought to spread false information about the surrender. According to Ukraine’s Security Service, the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, a hacker set up a relay system to assist in the route call for the Russian military. Law enforcement agencies say the system was used to send text messages to Ukrainian security forces and civilian personnel, urging them to surrender and to support Russia.
Ukraine’s security service says it has arrested the man responsible for the messages, which it says made thousands of calls to the Russian military every day.
Another, more visible attempt to spread confusion about the soon-to-be-surrendered. On March 16, a “dipfeck” video of Mr. Zelensky on social media called on Ukrainians to lay down their arms and surrender to Russia.
The hackers spread digitally manipulated video targeting Ukrainian television stations and news outlets, broadcasting it on Ukraine 24, a television station run by the media group Ukraine, and posting it on the outlet’s YouTube channel.
Media group Ukraine says it believes Russian hackers are responsible. “Our systems were under constant attack for more than two weeks before the hacking,” said Olha Nosik, a spokeswoman for the company. “We have strengthened security and applied the necessary technical measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.”
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Dipfecks, like Mr. Zelensky, use artificial intelligence to create seemingly realistic footage of people doing things they didn’t actually say or did. Researchers have warned that the technology could be used to spread lies about prominent politicians during elections and other high-profile political moments.
Oleksiy Makukhin, an expert who has worked against misinformation in Ukraine, said he first saw Mr Zelensky’s digitally manipulated video messaging app being broadcast on Telegram. But many of the messages about the video highlight the fact that it was a fake and badly made because it was ridiculed, Mr Makukhin said.
“I can hardly think of anyone in Ukraine who believed in it,” he said. “The people of Ukraine are already educated about the misinformation that Russia is always distributing.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Zelensky went to his official channel in a telegram to deny the video’s claim. “We are protecting our land, our children, our families,” he said. “So we are not planning to keep arms until our victory.”
On Friday, Ukraine’s security service said it had discovered another text message campaign that sent more than 5,000 messages about the surrender using a bot firm affiliated with Russia. “Event results are predetermined!” According to the text message agency. “Be prudent and refuse to support nationalism and the leaders of the country who have disrespected themselves and have already fled the capital !!!”
Mr Makukhin said he believed the confusion was an attempt to intimidate civilians, comparing it to nearby gunfire.
“I think the only reason for that is to intimidate the population, create pressure and ultimately try to surrender our government with this pressure,” he said. “There is still a general consensus in society that we cannot surrender. Otherwise all this suffering and death would have been in vain. “