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Digital war: How Russia is using deep fakes in Ukraine for propaganda

Digital war: How Russia is using deep fakes in Ukraine for propaganda

In war, with boots on the ground comes the battle for the mind. The Russia-Ukraine conflict now has deep fakes deployed for propaganda.

According to a striking report, Facebook and Twitter removed several fake profiles pretending to be pro-Russia Ukrainians over the weekend. (representational image) According to a striking report, Facebook and Twitter removed several fake profiles pretending to be pro-Russia Ukrainians over the weekend. (representational image)

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict entered its seventh day on Wednesday, Russia continued its attacks on crowded Ukrainian cities. And as is the case in modern wars, the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has played through a filter of propaganda in Moscow, with occupation on land combining with deep tech to influence perception.

One of the primary reasons, as stated by a report in The Guardian, comes in the backdrop of authorities appearing concerned that ordinary Russians will be disgusted by scenes of missiles striking cities in Ukraine and have sought to cut off the public from that uncomfortable truth.

However, the report holds some ground as it has now been revealed that a Russian propaganda campaign called ‘Ukraine Today’ has been using fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote misinformation about the war.

According to a striking report published in NBC News recently, Facebook and Twitter removed several fake profiles pretending to be pro-Russia Ukrainians over the weekend.

In a series of tweets, senior reporter at NBC News, Ben Collins, revealed how one account was using the name Vladimir Bondarenko and pretending to be a blogger from Kyiv. The user’s computer-generated photo looked almost real, besides "weird ears" which is what happens when you make a face on http://ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com, Collins posted.

Another fake profile coming from the Russian troll farm pretended to be Irina Kerimova, a Kharkiv-based guitar teacher-turned editor-in-chief of the Ukraine Today website. Like Bondarenko, her photo seemed scarily legit. "Also, interesting choice of mismatched earrings," highlighted Collins.

Via his tweets, Collins pointed out that this new propaganda operation has links to News Front and South Front, Facebook told us — two Russian propaganda outfits identified by the State Dept. in 2020.

"News Front and South Front are run by Alexander Malkevich, who ran… the St. Petersburg troll farm after 2016," he added.

Elaborating further, Collins posted that the St. Petersburg troll farm was charged by Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 election. Malkevich took it over after that, launching a site called 'USA Really'.

Meanwhile, disinformation experts warned that Russia is expected to continue manipulating narratives about Ukraine — most notably around the claims made by Putin. 

In other words, the country is very much counting on these disinformation strategies first identified during the 2016 US presidential election, albeit with some advancements (most notably the use of AI that can create realistic human faces), the NBC report highlighted. The fact that a new study has proven how AI-generated fake faces are more trustworthy than real ones does not help this case either, it added.

According to a spokesperson quoted by NBC News report, Twitter removed over a dozen profiles tied to News Front and South Front that were attempting to “disrupt the public conversation around the ongoing conflict.” Facebook said it took down 40 profiles related to the propaganda organisation, and even YouTube took down channels as well.

Meta and Twitter have since rolled out online safeguards for Ukrainians to use as digital defence as many fight to protect the Ukrainian internet.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians said on Wednesday that they were battling on in the port of Kherson, the first sizeable city Russia claimed to have seized, as airstrikes and bombardment caused devastation in cities that Moscow's bogged down forces have failed to capture.

After nearly a week, Russia has yet to achieve its aim of overthrowing Ukraine's government, but has, according to the Ukrainian emergency service, killed more than 2,000 civilians and destroyed hospitals, kindergartens and homes.

Western countries worry that bogged-down Russian forces are now trying to blast their way into the cities.

The bombing of Kharkiv, an eastern city of 1.5 million people, has left its centre a wasteland of ruined buildings and debris.

(With inputs from NBC news, agencies)