Hackers’ Fake Claims of Ukrainian Surrender Aren’t Fooling Anyone. So What’s Their Goal?

WASHINGTON – Andrei Taranov, a board member of the Ukrainian public broadcasting company Suspilin, was sitting in his office last month when he saw a strange message running down a television screen. It said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had announced his surrender.

Mr. Tarnov was stunned because there was no talk of surrender among reporters covering the Russian invasion of the country. “There’s nothing like that in any journalistic circle,” he recalled. “It seems quite contradictory.”

The message was fake, he quickly understood. It was planted by hackers on the media group Ukraine’s live broadcast Chiron.

Since the Russian invasion began in late February, hackers have repeatedly entered the broadcasting system of social media accounts and reliable information sources, such as government officials and leading media outlets in Ukraine. They used their access to spread false messages that Ukraine was surrendering, sometimes using fake videos to bolster their claims.

And while there is no evidence that the misinformation campaign has had a clear impact on the conflict, experts say the hackers’ intentions may not actually be to deceive anyone. Instead, hackers are largely trying to undermine trust in Ukrainian institutions and show that the government and the news media are not concerned for information or to keep hackers away from their system. This reflects the tactics used in other Russian misinformation campaigns, which have focused on inciting divisions and cultural conflicts.

“You can create uncertainty, confusion and mistrust,” said Ben Reid, director of the cybersecurity firm Mandiant. “It doesn’t have to stand up to close reading to make a small impact on the population; It breaks faith in all messages. “

Facebook has discovered a hacking campaign targeting military officials by state-sponsored hackers in Belarus. Other cyber attacks, including against media outlets and telecommunication networks, have not yet been attributed to certain state actors.

But Ukrainian officials suspect Russia is behind the hacking and disinformation.

“Of course they are behind these attacks,” said Victor Zora, deputy head of Ukraine’s cyber security agency, the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection.

“This is the first time in history that we face conventional warfare and cyber warfare at the same time,” he said. Zora said. “It completely changes our landscape for what is happening around Ukraine.”

Attempts to spread false information about the Ukrainian surrender began in the early days of the Russian invasion. Hackers logged into the Facebook accounts of high-profile Ukrainian military leaders and politicians, then used their access to post false messages announcing their surrender. They falsely claimed that the footage showed Ukrainian soldiers, along with some posts with videos of soldiers waving white flags.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it quickly detected the attack and in some cases was able to prevent hackers from posting fake messages from compromised accounts. The hackers were linked to a group of security researchers called Ghostwright, which Meta said was linked to Belarus.

Ghostwriters frequently target public figures in Europe, security researchers say, and often use compromised social media and email accounts to promote messages aimed at removing NATO support. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, researchers say, the group has focused its efforts there.

“They are aligned with Russian targets,” Mr. Read said about Ghostwriter.

In mid-March, Ukrainian authorities discovered another hacking campaign that tried to spread false information about the surrender. According to Ukraine’s security service, the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agency, a hacker set up a relay system to assist in route calls for the Russian military. The law enforcement agency said the system was also used to send text messages to Ukrainian security forces and civilian personnel, urging them to surrender and support Russia.

Ukraine’s security service says it has arrested the man responsible for the messages, who said he made thousands of calls every day on behalf of the Russian military.

Soon there was another, more visible attempt to spread false information about the surrender. March 16, Mr. “Deepfake” video. Zelensky called on Ukrainians to lay down their arms and surrender to Russia.

The hackers spread digitally manipulated video targeting television stations and news outlets in Ukraine, aired it on Ukraine24, a television station operated by the media group Ukraine, and posted it on the outlet’s YouTube channel.

Media group Ukraine said it believes Russian hackers are responsible. “Our system has been under constant attack for more than two weeks before it was hacked,” said company spokeswoman Olha Nosik. “We have strengthened security and used the necessary technical means to prevent such incidents from happening again.”

Deepfax like Mr. Ni. Zelensky is using artificial intelligence to create real footage that people are saying and saying that they don’t actually say or do. Researchers have warned that technology could be used during elections and other high-profile political moments to spread lies about leading politicians.

Alexei Makukhin, an expert working to combat misinformation in Ukraine, said that for the first time, he had met with Mr. Zelensky messaging application rotating on Telegram. But many messages about the video highlighted the fact that it was fake and mocked because it was badly made, Mr. Said Makukin.

“I can hardly think of anyone in Ukraine who believed in it,” he said. “People in Ukraine are already educated about the inaccurate information that Russia always distributes.”

However, Mr. Zelensky took to his official channel on the telegram to deny the video’s claims. “We are protecting our land, our children, our families,” he said. “So we have no plans to lay down our arms until we win.”

On Friday, Ukraine’s security service said it had discovered another text message campaign that had forced more than 5,000 messages about the surrender using a boat farm linked to Russia. “The outcome of the events has been predicted!” Text messages said, according to the agency. “Be prudent and refuse to support nationalism and the leaders of the country who have discredited themselves and have already fled the capital !!!”

Mr. Makukin said he believed the inaccurate information was an attempt to intimidate citizens, comparing it to neighborhood shelling.

“I think the only reason is to terrorize the population, create pressure and eventually try to surrender to our government with this pressure,” he said. “There is still a general consensus in the society that we cannot surrender. Otherwise all this pain and death would have been in vain. “

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