A digital war: Russia is using fake Ukrainian social media profiles to promote its propaganda

By Alma Fabiani

Published Mar 1, 2022 at 11:55 AM

Reading time: 1 minute

While it’s no surprise that the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has been broadcast through a filter of propaganda in Moscow—“where the authorities are concerned that ordinary Russians will be disgusted by scenes of missiles striking Kyiv,” The Guardian reported—it’s now been revealed that a Russian propaganda campaign called ‘Ukraine Today’ has been using fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote more lies about the war.

On 28 February 2022, NBC News reported that Facebook and Twitter removed fake profiles pretending to be pro-Russia Ukrainians over the weekend. One account was using the name Vladimir Bondarenko and pretending to be a blogger from Kyiv. The user’s computer-generated photo looked almost real, besides a weird bend in his ear. Another fake profile coming from the Russian troll farm pretended to be Irina Kerimova, a Kharkiv-based guitar teacher-turned editor-in-chief of the Ukraine Today website. Like Bondarenko, her photo seemed scarily legit.

At the time, another disinformation campaign tied to a known Belarusian hacking group used hacked accounts (instead of completely made-up ones) to push similar anti-Ukraine propaganda, according to Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s head of security policy, who talked to NBC News. The organisation in question has ties with two other websites called ‘News Front’ and ‘South Front’, which the US government has already designated as disinformation outlets.

The sites, both among the Russian propaganda profiles analysed by the US Department of State in 2020, have pushed misleading articles aiming to spread Kremlin talking points. News Front’s recent headlines include “Putin has earned his trust” and “‘Our Russia has come’: residents of liberated territories thank Russian Armed Forces.”

Disinformation experts warned that Russia is expected to continue manipulating narratives about Ukraine—most notably around the claims made by President Vladimir Putin. In other words, the country is very much counting on these disinformation strategies first identified during the 2016 US presidential election, albeit with some advancements (most notably the use of AI that can create realistic human faces). The fact that a new study has proven how AI-generated fake faces are more trustworthy than real ones does not help this case either.

According to a spokesperson, Twitter removed over a dozen profiles tied to News Front and South Front that were attempting to “disrupt the public conversation around the ongoing conflict.” Facebook said it took down 40 profiles related to the propaganda organisation, and even YouTube took down channels as well.

Meta and Twitter have since rolled out online safeguards for Ukrainians to use as digital defence as many fight to protect the Ukrainian internet.

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