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

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.

‘We are like the next reality show to people’: inside the Russia-Ukraine war sparking anxiety for World War III

Russia has begun to invade neighbouring country Ukraine as of today, Thursday 24 February, under orders from President Vladamir Putin, who announced a “special military operation” at dawn. After the President’s declaration, Russian forces began crossing Ukrainian borders and bombing military targets near its largest cities.

The decision prompted world leaders to issue warnings that this move could spark the largest scale war in Europe since 1945.

Russia has amassed over 150,000 combat troops on the borders of Ukraine, with an additional 34,000 separate and lightly armed divisions in the pro-Russian statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk. When Putin announced a military action in eastern Ukraine, he claimed it was intended to “demilitarise” the country and to protect civilians. In a pre-dawn televised announcement, the President stated that the military manoeuvre was in response to threats coming from Ukraine and pleas for help from the separatists in the neighbouring country. He went on to say that Russia had no intention to occupy Ukraine and the Ukrainian “regime” is responsible for the bloodshed.

Moments later, just after Putin’s announcement at around 6 am in Moscow, reports of attacks on Ukrainian military targets began. Explosions were heard outside Kiev and reported in several other major cities. Warning sirens also started to sound across the capital, whose population is around three million. The fleets deployed amount to an estimated two-thirds of Russia’s total ground forces, according to The Guardian. Half of Moscow’s troops have also been utilised in the region.

Russian forces breached the border in multiple destinations, Belarus in the north, Crimea in the south and Russia in the east. Currently, an estimated seven people are known to have been killed, including civilians, according to the BBC. However, one Ukrainian presidential adviser has alleged that more than 40 soldiers have died and dozens more were wounded.

Following the invasion, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law across the country today. In his address to the nation, he told his citizens to remain calm and said that the country will “defeat everyone,” as noted by The Independent. Severing all diplomatic relations with Russia, the Ukrainian leader also stated “we are strong. We are ready for everything.” The invasion is set to be one of the biggest since 2003 with the US-led operation in Iraq, where 175,000 troops were deployed.

Furthermore, it appears as though Russia is attacking the military infrastructure of Ukraine with early strike explosions that have been reported at airfields, military warehouses and military headquarters. A UN security meeting was also scheduled as the war broke.

Putin’s reasoning also stems from unfounded claims he made previously in a separate televised announcement this week. The angry address included assertions that Ukraine’s democratically elected government were to blame for eight years of genocide.

Over in Washington, President Joe Biden has called the move “an unprovoked attack,” committing to further action being taken against Moscow, and said that the US and its allies will respond in a “decisive way.” However, Putin has warned the international community of foreign leaders that they’d witness “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” over any attempts at interference.

The Independent further reported that the UN Secretary General Secretary-General António Guterres has asked Russia’s leader to withdraw his troops and “give peace a chance.” Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has labelled the conflict a “catastrophe for our continent” and condemned Putin for choosing “a path of bloodshed and destruction”.

SCREENSHOT interviewed one Ukrainian citizen about her experience and views on the growing tensions between the two countries.

“The last two weeks became especially tensive. People are different all over the world so there were diverse reactions to the situation,” she said. Many fled during the rising possibility of war on the horizon. The woman also noted that “eventually, some people had their bags packed when others were too tired of politics and just stopped reading [the] news.”

The woman admitted that she ultimately feels “doomed,” despite support from citizens across the world and in western countries. “Their governments are not ready for a war with Russia. All they can do is just blame Putin and condemn their actions. But none will really stand up for Ukraine,” she explained.

“I feel like the whole world is watching, empathising and can’t do anything. It reminds me of times when everyone was watching Squid Games. We are like the next reality show to people,” The woman went on to share.

Fears for the future and an impending third World War have begun. Sandra de Monte, founder and director of MindBerry Group spoke to Metro about the anxiety many are feeling across the world as we speak. With credits in global health, psychotherapy and counselling from Harvard and Regents University, De Monte said “the disturbing events that are unfolding in Ukraine have, understandably, left people across the world anxious.”

“Unfortunately, these types of events are often reminders of how many circumstances and situations affecting society are outside of our control,” she went on to elaborate.

Though it’s true that there’s no way to self-care yourself out of the anxiety, for those of us who can, “it’s important to assess how you’re doing, check in with loved ones, and take steps to prioritise your emotional wellbeing.”