Hackers’ false claims about Ukraine’s capitulation do not mislead anyone. So what is their goal?

WASHINGTON – Andriy Taranov, a board member of the Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne, was sitting in his office last month when he noticed a strange message moving at the bottom of the television screen. It says that the President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky has announced his surrender.

Mr Taranov was stunned because there was no talk of capitulation among reporters covering Russia’s invasion. There is nothing like it in any journalistic circle, he recalled. “It seems absolutely contradictory.”

The message was false, he realized quickly. It was planted in the chiron of a live broadcast of Media Group Ukraine by hackers.

Since Russia’s invasion began in late February, hackers have repeatedly hacked into social media accounts and systems to broadcast trusted sources of information 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 support their claims.

And while there is no evidence that the disinformation campaign has had a noticeable effect on the conflict, experts say the hackers’ intentions may not have actually deceived anyone. Instead, hackers are likely trying to undermine trust in Ukrainian institutions and show that the government and the media cannot be relied on for information or to keep hackers away from their systems. The tactics reflect those used in other Russian disinformation campaigns that focus on inciting divisions and cultural conflicts.

“You can create uncertainty, confusion and mistrust,” said Ben Reed, director of cybersecurity firm Mandiant. “It is not necessary to endure careful reading in order to have any effect on the population; undermines the credibility of all communications. “

Facebook tracked a hacking campaign targeting military personnel to state-sponsored hackers in Belarus. Other cyberattacks, including those against the media and telecommunications networks, have not yet been attributed to specific government actors.

However, Ukrainian authorities 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 have dealt with conventional war and cyber warfare at the same time,” said Mr Jora. “It completely changes our landscape for what is happening around Ukraine.”

Attempts to spread misinformation about Ukraine’s capitulation began days after the Russian invasion began. Hackers hacked into the Facebook accounts of high-ranking Ukrainian military leaders and politicians, then used their access to publish fake capitulation messages. They accompanied some of the posts with videos of soldiers waving a white flag, falsely claiming that the footage showed Ukrainian soldiers.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it quickly detected the attack and in some cases prevented hackers from posting fake messages from compromised accounts. The hackers were linked to a group that security researchers call Ghostwriter, said Meta, which is linked to Belarus.

Ghostwriter often targets public figures in Europe, security researchers have said, often using compromised social media and email accounts to push messages aimed at removing support for NATO. Since the war in Ukraine began, the group has focused its efforts there, according to researchers.

“They are in line with Russia’s goals,” Reed told Ghostwriter.

In mid-March, Ukrainian authorities uncovered another hacking campaign that tried to spread false information about the broadcast. According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agency, the hacker has set up a relay system to help divert calls to the Russian military. The system was also used to send text messages to Ukrainian security forces and government officials urging them to surrender and support Russia, law enforcement officials said.

Ukraine’s security service says it has arrested the person in charge of communications, who it says has made thousands of calls every day on behalf of the Russian military.

Another, more visible attempt to spread disinformation about capitulation soon followed. On March 16, a “deeply false” video of Zelensky appearing on social media asking Ukrainians to lay down their arms and surrender to Russia.

Hackers targeted TV stations and news outlets in Ukraine to distribute the digitally manipulated video by broadcasting it on Ukraine 24, a TV station operated by Media Group Ukraine, and posting it on the publication’s YouTube channel.

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 Nosik, a spokeswoman for the company. “We have strengthened the defense and applied the necessary technical means to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.

Deepfakes like Mr. Zelensky’s use artificial intelligence to create seemingly realistic shots of people doing and saying things they haven’t actually said or done. Researchers have warned that the technology could be used during elections and other important political moments to spread lies about prominent politicians.

Alexei Makukhin, an expert working in the fight against disinformation in Ukraine, said it was the first time he had seen Mr Zelensky’s digitally manipulated video circulate in the Telegram news app. But many reports of the video highlight the fact that it is fake and mock it for being poorly done, Mr Makukhin said.

“I can hardly think of anyone in Ukraine who believes in this,” he said. “People in Ukraine are already well educated about the disinformation that Russia has been spreading all along.

However, Mr Zelenski turned to his official Telegram channel to deny the video’s allegations. “We are protecting our land, our children, our families,” he said. “So we have no plans to lay down our arms until our victory.”

On Friday, the Security Service of Ukraine said it had launched another text messaging campaign that sent more than 5,000 messages for transmission using a bot farm linked to Russia. “The outcome of the events has been decided!” The text messages said, according to the agency. “Be sensible 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 neighborhoods.

“I think the only reason for this is to terrorize the population, to put pressure on it, and ultimately try to use that pressure to make our government surrender,” he said. “There is still a general consensus in society that we cannot surrender. Otherwise, all this pain and death was in vain. “

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