Russia uses artificial intelligence to spread deepfakes — a combination of the concepts deep learning and fake — on the internet; that is, montages of altered images or videos in which a person does or says things that they never did or said. This is among the disinformation weapons cybercriminals are using in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These are lies that appear to be true.
One of the most recent is a fake news video in which Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy surrenders, which hackers inserted March 16 onto the Ukraine 24 news site, the online publication reported. while it is not clear who created the deepfake, officials in Ukraine have been warning for weeks about the possibility of Russia spreading manipulated videos as part of its information warfare.
Zelenskyy himself confirmed that the video and its content were fake. “We are at home, defending Ukraine,” he said via Instagram. The concerted efforts of social platforms YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were significant to stop this material from going viral.
“Our teams identified and removed a deepfake video claiming to show President Zelenskyy issuing a statement he never did. It appeared on a reportedly compromised website and then started showing across the internet,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Security Policy at Meta, said via Twitter. “We’ve quickly reviewed and removed this video for violating our policy against misleading manipulated media and notified our peers at other platforms.” YouTube Spokeswoman Ivy Choi confirmed that the video was also removed from its platform.
The Ukrainian Army itself warns via Facebook about the danger of such fake materials. “Videos made through such technologies are almost impossible to distinguish from real ones,” the Armed Forces of Ukraine posted. “Be aware that this is fake! Its purpose is to disorient, sow panic, upset citizens, and force our troops to surrender.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also warned about this type of fake content during a press briefing. “We again see significant efforts to spread propaganda against Ukraine, NATO, and the United States. This includes malicious social media operations, the use of overt and covert online proxy media, the spread of disinformation on television and radio programs, and the holding of conferences designed to mislead participants into believing that Ukraine is to blame for escalating tensions in the region, not Russia, as well as the use of cyber operations to undermine the activities of the media and conduct ‘hack and reveal’ operations, that is, cyber hacking with the subsequent disclosure of personal data and messages.”
Another tool Kremlin sympathizers use to distort public opinion and spread misinformation is known as astroturfing, a deceptive digital strategy that masks the sponsors of a message or campaign in order to receive widespread grassroots support. On social networks this can be done through accounts that retweet content repeatedly to amplify it and maximize its reach.
“We have identified a network of dozens of Russian government Twitter accounts using a loophole in the platform’s rules to run a coordinated program of disinformation,” said Timothy Graham, a professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, who analyzed 75 official Russian Twitter accounts, for the Australian news site The Conversation. “They have been retweeted 35.9 million times, received 29.8 million likes, and 4 million replies. Between February 25 and March 3, 2022, these accounts made 1,157 tweets — and around three quarters were about Ukraine. The accounts have tried to spread false narratives to justify the invasion.”
Researchers have detected that the most prominent accounts belong to the Russian Foreign Ministry. For example, on March 2, the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations (U.N.) Office in Geneva posted a video delegitimizing Ukraine as a sovereign state, sowing doubts and falsehoods about a neo-Nazi infiltration.
A March 25 message on the Twitter profile of the Russian Mission to the U.N., sharing an interview with Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, also claims that Ukrainian nationalists have committed crimes.
This account also posted a message from Konstantin Gavrilov, head of the Russian Delegation for Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control in Vienna, claiming that “Ukrainian neo-Nazis are holding more than 4.5 million civilians and approximately 7,000 foreigners hostage as human shields. Every day up to 235 citizens die at the hands of radicals.”
“The sheer speed at which disinformation spreads, especially through automated bot accounts, makes it difficult for content moderators to keep up,” Graham warned in his article. “The emotive, partisan nature of much online disinformation also means internet users and journalists are more likely to spread it without checking it too closely.”