WASHINGTON – Andriy Taranov, a member of the board of the Ukrainian public broadcasting company Suspilne, was sitting in his office last month when he noticed a strange message passing through the bottom of the television screen. It states that Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, announced the surrender.
Mr Taranov was appalled that there was no story of surrender among journalists covering Russia’s invasion of the country. “There is no such thing in any journalistic circle,” he recalled thinking. “It seems absolutely contradictory.”
The message was fake, he realized quickly. Hackers planted it on the chiron of live broadcasts of Media Group Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion began in late February, hackers have repeatedly hacked into social media accounts and systems of broadcasting reliable sources of information in Ukraine, such as government officials and prominent media. They used their approach to spread false messages that Ukraine was surrendering, sometimes using fake videos to substantiate their claims.
And while there is no evidence that the disinformation campaign had any noticeable effect on the conflict, experts say the hacker’s intentions may not be to actually cheat someone. Instead, hackers are most likely trying to undermine trust in Ukrainian institutions and show that the government and the media cannot be trusted with information or keep hackers away from their systems. The tactics reflect those used in other Russian disinformation campaigns, which have focused on inciting divisions and cultural conflicts.
“You can build insecurity, confusion and mistrust,” said Ben Read, director of cyber security company Mandiant. “One does not have to endure careful reading to have any effect on the population; it undermines trust in all messages. ”
Facebook followed one hacking campaign, which targeted military officials, to hackers sponsored by the state in Belarus. Other cyber attacks, including those on media outlets and telecommunications networks, have not yet been attributed to certain state actors.
But Ukrainian officials suspect that Russia is behind the hacking and misinformation.
“Of course they are behind these attacks,” said Viktor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine’s cybersecurity agency, the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection.
“This is the first time in history that we are dealing with conventional war and cyber war at the same time,” said Jora. “It completely changes our landscape for what is happening around Ukraine.”
Attempts to spread misinformation about the Ukrainian surrender began a few days after the beginning of the Russian invasion. The hackers hacked into the Facebook accounts of high-ranking Ukrainian military leaders and politicians, and then used their approach to publish false messages announcing the surrender. Some of the posts were accompanied by videos of soldiers waving a white flag, falsely claiming that the video showed Ukrainian soldiers.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said that it quickly discovered the attack and that in some cases it managed to prevent hackers from posting fake messages from compromised accounts. The hackers were linked to a group that security researchers call Ghostwriter, Meta said, which is linked to Belarus.
Ghostwriter often targets public figures in Europe, security researchers said, often using compromised social media and email accounts to push through messages aimed at removing support for NATO. Since the war in Ukraine began, the group has focused its efforts there, researchers say.
“They are in line with Russia’s goals,” he said. Read about Ghostwriter.
In mid-March, Ukrainian officials uncovered another hacking campaign that tried to spread false information about the surrender. According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the State Law Enforcement Service and the Intelligence Service, the hacker set up a relay system to help direct calls to the Russian army. The system was also used to send text messages to Ukrainian security forces and civil servants, urging them to surrender and support Russia, the law enforcement agency said.
Ukraine’s security service said it had arrested a person responsible for the messages, who it said made thousands of calls every day on behalf of the Russian military.
Another, more visible attempt to spread misinformation about the surrender soon followed. On March 16, a “deepfake” video of Mr. Zelensky, who asks the Ukrainians to lay down their arms and surrender to Russia.
Hackers targeted television stations and news outlets in Ukraine to spread digitally manipulated video, broadcasting it on Ukraine 24, a television station operated by Media Group Ukraine, and posting it on the house’s YouTube channel.
The media group Ukraine said it believed Russian hackers were responsible. “Our systems have been under constant attack for more than two weeks before being hacked,” said Olha Nosyk, a company spokeswoman. “We have strengthened protection and applied the necessary technical means to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.”
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Rocket attack. A rocket attack on a crowded train station in eastern Ukraine killed at least 50 and wounded nearly 100, according to Ukrainian officials, who blamed Russia for hitting a large evacuation point for those trying to escape a previously expected intensified offensive.
Deepfakes like that Mr. Zelensky uses artificial intelligence to create seemingly realistic shots of people doing and saying things they didn’t actually say or do. Researchers have warned that the technology could be used during elections and other high-profile political moments to spread lies about prominent politicians.
Oleksiy Makukhin, an expert who worked on the fight against disinformation in Ukraine, said that he saw for the first time a digitally manipulated video of Mr. Zelenski circulating in the Telegram messaging app. But many messages about the video highlighted the fact that it was fake and ridiculed it because it was poorly made, Mr Makukhin said.
“I can hardly remember any person in Ukraine who believed in that,” he said. “People in Ukraine are already quite educated about the disinformation that Russia is constantly distributing.”
However, Mr. Zelenski denied the claims from the video on his official channel on the Telegram. “We are defending our country, our children, our families,” he said. “So we don’t plan to lay down our arms until we win.”
On Friday, the Security Service of Ukraine announced that it had unveiled another text messaging campaign that sent over 5,000 messages of surrender using a bot farm linked to Russia. “The outcome of the event is predetermined!” it is stated in text messages, the agency states. “Be prudent and refuse to support nationalism and the country’s leaders who have discredited themselves and have already fled the capital !!!”
Mr Makukhin said he believed the misinformation was an attempt to intimidate civilians, comparing it to shelling settlements.
“I think the only reason is to terrorize the population, to put pressure and in the end to try with this pressure to surrender our government,” he said. “There is still a general consensus in society that we cannot surrender. Otherwise, all this pain and death was in vain. “