Foreign propagandists have begun utilizing hackers to carry out a unique form of fake news proliferation: infiltrating news websites, tampering with data, and publishing misleading online news stories that exploit the trusted reputations of these news agencies. These novel disinformation campaigns have the potential to slowly erode the public perception of mainstream media and news organizations.
Disinformation and hackers context
Nation-states and cybercriminals are hacking various mediums to plant false stories as a tactic in online propaganda. For example, in 2021, there were reports of Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, conducting hacking campaigns on disinformation sites like InfoRos and OneWorld.press. According to senior US intelligence officials, the GRU’s “psychological warfare unit,” known as Unit 54777, was directly behind a disinformation campaign that included false reports that the COVID-19 virus was made in the US. Military experts fear fabricated stories posing as real news will mature into weapons in information warfare, designed to re-enforce people’s anger, anxieties, and fears.
In 2020, cybersecurity firm FireEye reported that Ghostwriter, a disinformation-focused group based in Russia, has been creating and disseminating fabricated content since March 2017. The group focused on maligning the military alliance NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and US troops in Poland and the Baltic states. The group published tampered material across social media, including fake news websites. In addition, FireEye observed Ghostwriter hacking content management systems to post their own stories. They then spread these false narratives through spoofed emails, social media posts, and user-generated op-eds on other sites. The misleading information includes:
- The US military’s aggression,
- NATO troops spreading coronavirus, and
- NATO preparing for a full-scale invasion of Belarus.
One of the more recent battlegrounds for hacker disinformation campaigns is Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian-language tabloid based in Ukraine, claimed that hackers tampered with and published an article on the newspaper site stating that nearly 10,000 Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine. Komsomolskaya Pravda announced that its administrator interface was hacked, and the figures were manipulated. Although unverified, projections from the US and Ukrainian officials claim that the “hacked” numbers might be accurate. Meanwhile, since its initial assault on Ukraine, the Russian government has forced independent media organizations to close and passed new legislation punishing journalists who resist its propaganda.
Meanwhile, social media platforms Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have announced that they had removed posts that targeted disinformation campaigns against Ukraine. Meta revealed that the two Facebook campaigns were small and in their early stages. The first campaign entailed a network of nearly 40 accounts, pages, and groups in Russia and Ukraine. They created fake personas that included computer-generated profile pictures to appear as if they were independent news reporters with claims about Ukraine being a failed state. Meanwhile, more than a dozen accounts linked to the campaign were banned by Twitter. According to the company’s spokesperson, the accounts and links originated in Russia and were designed to influence the public debate about Ukraine’s ongoing situation through news stories.
Implications of disinformation and hackers
Wider implications of disinformation and hackers may include:
- Increase in AI-generated journalist personas pretending to represent legitimate news sources, leading to more disinformation flooding online.
- AI-generated op-eds and commentaries manipulating people’s opinions on public policies or national elections.
- Social media platforms investing in algorithms that identify and delete fake news and fake journalist accounts.
- News companies investing in cybersecurity and data and content verification systems to prevent hacking attempts.
- Disinformation sites being manipulated by hacktivists.
- Increase in information warfare between nation-states.
Questions to comment on
- How do you ensure that your news sources are verified and legitimate?
- How else can people protect themselves from fabricated news stories?