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Cyber attacks, memes, Zelensky’s macho imagery — how Ukraine-Russia are engaged in a parallel online war

The internet war has taken on several forms, including provocative memes, site hacks and fake news.

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New Delhi: The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict is not just conventionally being fought on land, air and sea. By the time Russia had begun its land offensive into Ukraine’s sovereign territories in the early hours of 24 February, a parallel online war had also exploded between the two sides.

This internet war has taken on several forms, including memes shared by verified handles and government officials, cyber attacks on both sides, unverified stories of war heroes flagged as “misinformation”, and President Volodymyr Zelensky himself emerging as an active on-ground hero at the centre of the conflict.

Data-erasing malware enters conflict 

On 23 February, cybersecurity firms ESET and Symantec flagged an unprecedented level of cyber attacks on Ukrainian government and banking websites, rendering them “inaccessible”, according to the BBC.

Taking place after a series of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, this second form of cyber attacks reportedly used a data-erasing malware termed as HermeticWiper.

“The malware makes use of the disc or storage management software to corrupt the local data on the device, after which it reboots the computer. It is also capable of attacking data recovery tools on a system and the rebooting system of a hard drive, making it difficult for the device to reboot into its operating system, essentially making it inoperable,” The Hindu explained how HermeticWiper operates.

In response, Ukraine has received cybersecurity aid from allied nations as well as from global hacker collective Anonymous, which reportedly declared war on the Vladimir Putin regime on Thursday.

Meta and Twitter have also cracked down on misinformation and vigilante pro-Russia hacker groups such as Ghostwriter.

Ghostwriter had earlier hacked accounts of several east Ukrainian politicians, denigrating NATO and pushing anti-west Russian propaganda.

In spite of a gap between cyber-warfare capabilities between the two countries, Ukraine has determinedly pushed pushed back rival narratives through collective resistance on social media.

Social Media crackdown on pro-Russian content

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, announced last Friday that it would discontinue ads from Russian state media. This was their first retaliation in curbing “fake news” and “misleading information” in the current crisis. Twitter and Youtube followed suit and barred them from monetising content.

Meta’s statement said: “We’ve established a special operations center staffed by experts from across the company, including native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, who are monitoring the platform around the clock, allowing us to respond to issues in real-time.”

On Sunday night, the same experts announced a crackdown on hackers associated with an operation called “Ghostwriter” which according to the statement were “threat actors”. The company “took down a network run by people in Ukraine and Russia targeting Ukraine for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behaviour. They ran websites posing as independent news entities and created fake personas across many social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, Odnoklassniki and VK,” the statement said.

Twitter is also combating an influx of fake videos shared and re-shared by users. One such video that was uploaded in January 2022 had a misleading caption to a video. The caption read, “Various parts of Ukraine are getting attacked by Russia.”

It took the video down after factual details emerged. Twitter revealed the video was first shared on Tik Tok with the caption “Lightning strike at the power plant”. The video had six million views before it was taken down. Now the larger challenge is to protect high-profile individuals from hackers who are capable of compromising accounts and spread misinformation.

Russian ‘wine’ for Ukrainian ‘headache’

For the past few months, Ukraine’s official social media handles have been sharing dark, sometimes humorous, war-themed memes. Users were quick to criticise and there was an instant backlash over these posts that were clearly deemed as political shitposting by many at an unfortunate time.

On the morning of the invasion, for instance, Ukraine posted a political cartoon last week juxtaposing Hitler with Putin that drew strong reactions, blaming the handle for demeaning the ongoing invasion, rebuking the crisis.

The cartoon received nearly 2 million likes and 450,000 retweets, prompting Ukraine to clarify that the cartoon was not simply a meme, but “our and your reality right now””

Another tweet from December 2021 showed different “types of headaches” with “living next to Russia”. In response, the Russian Twitter handle posted the “diagnosis” of these “headaches” saying the Russian Crimean wines could cure it. While Ukraine’s meme went viral with hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets, Russia’s response didn’t crack the 2,000 mark.

War hero narratives with Zelensky in the forefront

Rumours around “The Ghost of Kyiv” and the Zmiiyni Island border guards’ last stand had been doing the rounds on all social media platforms leading to suspicions that videos online might be fake. Users had questioned that these instances were forced online in order to change the ongoing narratives.

The video showed a soaring Ukrainian jet that shot down six Russian fighter planes right when Russia was invading the main cities. The caption focused on how the pilot was “a nightmare for invading Russian aircrafts” whereas experts believe that it is impossible to shoot down six fighter planes.

Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko had posted the picture of the said pilot on Twitter. The photo, however, was from April 2019 and first posted by the official account of the Ukrainian forces. Poroshenko is yet to take the tweet down.

In the case of the battle of Zmiinyi Island, President Zelensky had said that all 13 of the island’s border guards had perished and would be posthumously awarded the “Hero of Ukraine”. But several hours later, Ukraine’s Border Guard service said that the guards are possibly alive and captured by Russia in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Zelensky has also built a popular reputation as a wartime president through his social media activity, in the form of Instagram lives and v-logs from the ground with his cabinet members. His popularity soared after he refused to accept the US’ offer of a safe passage out of the country.

However, several photographs shared by his supporters were also flagged for misinformation. For instance, one post showed Zelensky wearing the military uniform, the caption read, “This is the President of Ukraine Zelensky. He took off his clothes and put on a military uniform to join the troops in fighting to protect the Ukrainian homeland. He is a true leader.”

Users shared that he allegedly joined the army to defend Ukraine. The pictures turned out to be from December 2021, when he was visiting forces in the Donbas region, India Today had reported.


Also read: ‘Just short of nuclear’– Financial sanctions against Russia can collapse its economy


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