Title: With elections just days away, Ukraine faces disinformation, cyber attacks and further Russian interference
Author: Tetyana Bohdanova
Date: Tue, 26 Mar 2019 19:28:58 -0400
Podcast Download URL: https://globalvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/20190224_200443-400x300.jpg
Worried about Russian election meddling? Take a look at Ukraine.
Little green and grey men invading a cyber space. Photo by Filip Stojanovski,
Ukrainians will head for the polls on Sunday 31 March in what will be the
first regular national elections since the country's 2014 Euromaidan
With its Crimean peninsula still occupied by Russian forces, an ongoing
military conflict in eastern Ukraine, and rising activity of far-right groups
, the country is a prime target for both domestic and external information
Ukraine has been in the crossfire of disinformation warfare since 2014, with
multiple political actors attempting to disrupt its democratic development. The
elections for both the office of the president and parliamentary seats will be
a crucial test for Ukraine’s democracy and stability.
Can Facebook counter these campaigns?
Much of the action has taken place on Facebook, which is the country's most
popular social network. Despite persistent efforts of civil society and
media groups, Facebook has done relatively little to respond to Ukraine's
disinformation problem in the past. But the company changed its tune in
January, when it publicly announced that it had taken steps to counter some of
Citing the threat of foreign influence, the company changed its policy towards
Ukraine for the election period, banning all political ads purchased from
outside of the country (including those concerning politicians, political
parties, political slogans and symbols, mobilizing or discouraging voters) and
vowing to monitor user behavior more closely.
In short order, on January 17, Facebook reported that it had removed
multiple pages and accounts on both Facebook and Instagram linked to two
malicious operations that originated in Russia and appeared to include
Ukrainian users among their main targets.
One cluster of 289 pages removed by the company had been active in Central
Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltics, and Central and Eastern European countries.
Facebook also removed 107 pages and 41 Instagram accounts that had operated
specifically in Ukraine. Facebook described their activities as “creating
networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were
doing.” The accounts and pages were linked to employees of the Russian state
news agency Sputnik, but the individuals behind them had represented
themselves as being Ukrainian.
According to Facebook, the Ukraine-focused network disseminated local news
stories on a variety of topics and spent around US $25,000 on ads. The
group's activities resembled the behavior of Russia's Internet Research Agency
(IRA), which was found to have run online influence operations during 2016
elections in the US.
Russian online disinformation against Ukraine is nothing new
There is ample evidence that Russian state actors and associates have targeted
Ukraine with disinformation campaigns going at least as far back as 2014.
In 2016, the Ukrainian internet portal Texty.org.ua uncovered a coordinated
network of more than 2,000 Facebook profiles linked to a Russian troll
farm, which for nearly eight months led an online campaign that sought to
topple the Ukrainian government.
A more recent study by VoxUkraine reviewed more than nine million tweets
linked to the IRA, of which 750,000 related to Ukraine. This disinformation
campaign appears to have been sparked by the 2014 Euromaidan revolution and
has steadily gained ground through the occupation and annexation of Crimea. The
campaign went into overdrive the day after Malaysian flight MH17
crashed in eastern Ukraine.
#Euromaidan protesters fill central Kyiv on Dec. 1, 2013. Photo by Alexandra
Gnatoush. Used with permission.
These and other instances have prompted disinformation researchers at the
Oxford Internet Institute to state that Ukraine may be home to “the most
globally advanced case of computational propaganda”.
Citizen journalists and independent researchers also have played a key role
in countering Russian disinformation and alerting both the Ukrainian government
and international community about the threats it poses. Despite these efforts
and appeals from public officials — including President Poroshenko, who
publicly suggested that Facebook open a Ukraine office — Facebook was
relatively inactive in responding to the problem until 2019.
It appears that Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections and ensuing public
pressure (along with pressure from US legislators) have forced Facebook to more
actively respond to threats of disinformation, especially when it comes from
Russia and targets democratic elections.
But while the company's recent efforts could be a step in the right direction,
it may be too little too late.
Increased disinformation, cyber attacks and other types of interference
There is only so much Facebook or any other tech platform can do by changing
its policies or dedicating more time and labor to monitoring user activity in
certain countries. Moreover, some of these policy changes can arguably make the
situation worse by driving malicious activity into the shadows.
Facebook users were quick to spot several popular pages with seemingly
Ukrainian political content that were run from Russia after the network
enforced identity and location verification for administrators of popular
public pages and verified accounts. In 2018, Ukrainian state security services
warned of apparent preparations by Russia to influence upcoming elections by
“buying out” administrators of popular Facebook groups in eastern Ukraine
and hiring Ukrainian citizens to set up and register news websites
domestically. Such persons were offered monetary incentives to disseminate
Russian-made content through their social media accounts and web platforms. In
cases like these, foreign interference would be much more difficult to detect,
let alone expose or counter.
Observers at the Ukrainian Election Task Force say that Russia’s goal is not to
aid a particular candidate, but rather “to delegitimize the election process
And if the actions of foreign actors alone were not enough, Ukrainian activists
such as political “bot busters” keep uncovering evidence of domestic
politicians’ attempts to manipulate public opinion online through the use of
inauthentic accounts. In addition, the problematic application of outdated
political advertisement regulations to online spaces provides opportunities for
Currently, disinformation attacks against Ukraine are as active as ever,
and other technology-related incidents are on rise too. Just ten days before
elections, the head of Ukraine's Cyberpolice announced that they have
registered increased attacks on Ukraine's election infrastructure by hacker
groups associated with Russia. A few days later, a fake e-mail about
election rules was sent on behalf of Ukraine’s Minister of Interior.
Alongside state security services working to counter foreign interference
during elections, it is vital that activists, researchers and civil society
groups keep supporting fact checking, public communications and election
observation initiatives on the ground as polling day approaches.
Written by Tetyana Bohdanova · comments (0) 
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