Facebook uncovers misinformation and hacking campaigns targeting Ukraine

Facebook parent company Meta said it uncovered Russian efforts to undermine trust in the Ukrainian government and a separate attempt to hack into Ukrainian military officials and journalists using its platform.

The two separate campaigns were both small scale and early taken, the company said.

“There has been a lot of speculation and interest as to whether there are covert influence operations targeting public debate in Ukraine and to what extent we see cyber-hacking groups targeting individuals in Ukraine,” Nathaniel said. Gleicher, head of security policy at Meta. “This is a case where we see both of those things.”

The first campaign involved a network of around 40 accounts, pages and groups on Facebook and Instagram, operated in Russia and Ukraine. They used fake personas, including computer-generated profile pictures, to impersonate independent news outlets and published claims that Ukraine was a failed state.

The goal of the efforts appears to be to drive traffic to the network’s own websites, Meta said, and the network posts on social media, including Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and Russian social networks VK and Odnoklassniki. On Facebook and Instagram, he has amassed less than 5,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram. The company did not specify how many people interacted with or viewed its posts.

“It’s a sign that while these actors are trying to do these kinds of influence operations, they’re getting caught sooner and they’re not reaching the audiences they would have reached just a few years ago,” Gleicher said.

Meta said it deleted the accounts and blocked associated websites. The company says it found links to another network of fake accounts it took down in 2020 that involved people in Russia and Ukraine’s Donbass region as well as two Crimean media now sanctioned by the US government.

Separately, Meta said it has seen an increase in hacking attempts from Ukrainians in recent days. He linked some to a Belarus-linked effort known in cybersecurity circles as “Ghostwriter,” which has previously been blamed for cyber attacks in other European countries.

Meta says Ghostwriter attempted to hack the accounts of high-level Ukrainians, including military officials, journalists and public figures, although he did not identify any individuals.

Hackers attempt to break into targets’ email and social media accounts and post misinformation. “We detected attempts to target people on Facebook and posted videos on YouTube depicting Ukrainian troops as weak and surrendering to Russia, including a video purporting to show Ukrainian soldiers surrendering,” said David Agranovich, Director threat disruption at Meta.

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Gleicher said the company has alerted the “handful” of Ukrainians who have been targeted recently and is blocking domains hackers use in their phishing attempts.

Russia has a long history of using fake accounts and bots to spread disinformation on social media, including during its 2014 campaign to annex Crimea and the 2016 US presidential election.

Since then, Facebook and other tech companies have been quicker to root out this kind of inauthentic behavior, says Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center who studies misinformation.

At the same time, Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation have become more overt, she said, through official government communications and pro-Kremlin state media coverage that is “repackaged on platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube”.

“It’s less about false identities, however convincing, than completely staged events that are supposed to create the pretext to justify this war,” she said.

Facebook, along with Google, has taken steps in recent days to restrict Russian state media. Both companies block these outlets from making money from advertising on their platform and have blocked them entirely in Ukraine, at the request of the Ukrainian government. The moves angered the Russian government, which accused the companies of censorship and said it would limit access to Facebook in the country.

Jankowicz says this shows how the challenge for social media companies is changing.

“Withdrawals [of fake accounts] let’s go no further,” she said. “We also need to think about the bigger picture: how can we provide information to Ukrainians who need it right now? How to make sure the Russians hear the truth? How do we ensure that this conflict is covered and discussed in a way that reflects reality?”

Editor’s note: Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

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