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The hacker’s fake claim of surrendering to the Ukrainians fooled no one. So what are their goals?


WASHINGTON – Andriy Taranov, a board member of the Ukrainian public broadcasting company Suspilne, was sitting in his office last month when he noticed a strange message running across the bottom of his television screen. It said Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, had announced his surrender.

Mr. Taranov was surprised that there was no talk of surrender among reporters covering Russia’s invasion of the country. “There is nothing like that in any journalistic world,” he recalled thinking. “It looks completely contradictory.”

The message was fake, he quickly realized. It was planted by hackers on the live TV channel of Media Group Ukraine.

Since the Russian invasion began at the end of February, hackers have repeatedly infiltrated the social media accounts and broadcast systems of trusted information sources in Ukraine, such as government officials. government and famous media. They use their access to spread false messages that Ukraine is surrendering, sometimes using fake videos to bolster their claims.

And while there’s no evidence that the disinformation campaign has had any apparent impact on the conflict, experts say the hackers’ intent may not have actually fooled anyone. Instead, the hackers are most likely trying to erode trust in Ukrainian institutions and show that the government and news media cannot be relied on to inform or intercept. hackers infiltrate their systems. These tactics mirror those used in other Russian disinformation campaigns, which have focused on divisiveness and cultural conflict.

“You can create uncertainty, confusion, and mistrust,” said Ben Read, director of cybersecurity firm Mandiant. “It doesn’t have to end up close reading to have some effect on the population; it erodes trust in all messages”.

Facebook has tracked an attack campaign, targeting military officials, to state-sponsored hackers in Belarus. Other cyberattacks, including those targeting media carriers and telecommunications networks, have yet to be attributed to specific state actors.

But Ukrainian officials suspect that Russia was behind the hack and disinformation.

“Of course they are behind these attacks,” said Victor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine’s cybersecurity agency, Special Communications and Information Protection Service.

“This is the first time in history that we are dealing with a conventional war and a cyberwar at the same time,” Mr. Zhora said. “It completely changed our perspective on what was happening around Ukraine.”

Efforts to spread misinformation about Ukraine’s surrender began days after the Russian invasion began. Hackers broke into the Facebook accounts of senior Ukrainian military leaders and politicians, then used their access to post fake messages announcing surrender. They attached several posts with videos of soldiers waving white flags, claiming that the video depicts Ukrainian soldiers falsely.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, says it quickly detected the attack and in some cases was able to stop hackers from posting fake news from compromised accounts. Meta says the hackers are affiliated with a group that security researchers call Ghostwriters.

Security researchers say Ghostwriter regularly targets public figures in Europe, often using compromised email and social media accounts to push messages in support of NATO. According to the researchers, since the war in Ukraine began, the group has focused its efforts on it.

“They fit Russian goals,” Read said of Ghostwriter.

In mid-March, Ukrainian officials discovered another hacking campaign attempting to spread misinformation about a surrenderer. According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s intelligence and law enforcement agency, a hacker set up a relay system to help route calls to the Russian military. The system is 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 the person responsible for the messages, who it said made thousands of calls a day on behalf of the Russian military.

Another, more obvious attempt to spread misinformation about a surrender soon followed. On March 16, a “deepfake” video of Mr. Zelensky asking the Ukrainians to lay down their arms and surrender to Russia appeared on social media.

Hackers targeted TV stations and news outlets in Ukraine to distribute the digitally manipulated video, broadcast it on Ukraine 24, a television station operated by Media Group Ukraine, and posted it on the channel. The company’s YouTube.

The Ukrainian media group said it believed Russian hackers were responsible. Olha Nosyk, a spokeswoman for the company, said: “Our system was under continuous attack for more than two weeks before being attacked. “We have increased protection and put in place the necessary technical means to prevent such incidents from recurring.”

Deepfakes like Mr. Zelensky’s use artificial intelligence to create seemingly realistic footage of people doing and saying things they weren’t actually saying or doing. Researchers have warned that this technology can exploit in elections and other famous political moments to spread lies about prominent politicians.

Oleksiy Makukhin, an expert who used to work against disinformation in Ukraine, said he first saw the digitally manipulated video of Mr. Zelensky circulating on the messaging app Telegram. However, many messages about the video emphasized the fact that it was fake and mocked it for being poorly made, Mr. Makukhin said.

“I can hardly think of anyone in Ukraine who believes that,” he said. “People in Ukraine are pretty well educated about the disinformation that Russia always distributes.”

However, Mr Zelensky took to his official channel on Telegram to deny the claims about the video. “We are protecting our land, our children, our families,” he said. “So we don’t plan to take down any weapons until our victory.”

On Friday, Ukraine’s Security Service said it had discovered another text message campaign that pushed more than 5,000 messages about surrender using a bot farm with links to Russia. “Results of predefined events!” The text message said, according to the agency. “Be cautious and refuse to support nationalism and the leaders of the country who have discredited themselves and have fled the capital!!!”

Mr. Makukhin said he believes the disinformation is an attempt to frighten civilians, comparing it to shelling of nearby areas.

“I think the only reason for this is to terrorize the population, put pressure and finally try with this pressure to get our government to surrender,” he said. “There is still a general consensus in society that we cannot surrender. Otherwise all this pain and death is nothing.”



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