Pro-Russian hackers spread hoaxes to divide Ukraine and its allies

As Ukrainians flocked to Poland earlier this year to flee from Russian invaders, a Kremlin-aligned hacking group sought to rumors that criminal gangs were waiting to harvest the organs of child refugees.

Known to cybersecurity experts as Ghostwriter, the network apparently aimed to create distrust between and Poland. This is one of several tactics outlined in a new report outlining how Russia has used disinformation, fear and propaganda alongside shells, tanks and soldiers to demoralize and its .

The false claim made its way into Russian state media and online platforms popular with far-right groups in the US, where posts spreading the fraud were shared thousands of times on sites like Telegram and Twitter. The disinformation operation exploited legitimate concerns that Ukrainian refugees could be abducted by traffickers, but no evidence of organ harvesting emerged.

“Ghost writer operations will often turn their backs on the news or recent events,” said Alden Wahlstrom, senior analyst at cybersecurity firm Mandiant, which released the report on Thursday. “There are certain reasons that are consistent: undermining confidence in NATO. Creating tension.”

The report detailed other disinformation and propaganda campaigns aligned with Russia, including false online claims that Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy committed suicide or fled Ukraine. In some cases, the campaigns relied on Russian state media or fake social media accounts to spread disinformation. Mandiant also identified cases where groups affiliated with Russian intelligence disguised their disinformation as independent journalism. Russian diplomats have also emerged as a major vector for disinformation.

In one example in March, groups affiliated with Russia spread claims online that Zelenskyy surrendered the day he was preparing to address the US Congress.

“Influencing efforts and propaganda are used to shape public opinion, influence the morale of those involved in a conflict,” said Renee DiResta, research director at the Stanford Internet Observatory and expert on disinformation and social media. DiResta said Russia relies on this sophisticated network to “wage narrative warfare around the world.”

Ghostwriter is linked to Belarus, an important Russian ally. The network was also accused of trying to hack the social media accounts of dozens of Ukrainian officers earlier this year. The operation was revealed by Facebook’s parent company Meta, which said had blocked the officers’ accounts before using them to stream videos of Ukrainian soldiers surrendering.

The organ harvesting hoax was exacerbated by Russian state media and eventually infiltrated English-language websites and platforms. It can now be found on major platforms such as Twitter and Telegram, where Russian forces are portrayed as saviors of victims of trafficking.

One example on Twitter reads, “The pro-Russian government thwarted a major kidnapping plot by organ traffickers.” Another post from a user in Texas says “US Government accomplice.”

Mandiant’s report also highlighted pro-Chinese and pro-Iranian disinformation networks trying to use the war in Ukraine for their own ends.

The pro-Chinese network has reinforced a discredited Russian claim that the US is conducting covert biological weapons research in Ukraine. This claim is similar to those spread by Chinese officials trying to blame the US for the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Iranian network, on the contrary, sought to create tensions between the Russians and Israel by spreading claims that Israel sided with Ukraine in the conflict.

In both cases, the researchers at Mandiant declined to attribute the work to government agencies in Iran or China, noting the difficulty of proving such links. Still, Wahlstrom said Iran and China are using online disinformation to further their goals, and Russia’s invasion to do so.

“They read the official Russian narratives like parrots,” Wahlstrom told the AP. “They also gave it their own twist.”

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.

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