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Security Service busts ‘million-bot’ farm used to discredit Ukrainian leadership, media allege Poroshenko’s party involvement

by Alisa Sobolieva August 2, 2022 11:17 PM 2 min read
A Ukrainian Security Service officer searches the apartment of a suspect who was allegedly running a massive bot farm that spread disinformation about Ukraine's top political and military leadership on Aug. 2, 2022. (Security Service of Ukraine)

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) exposed a massive bot farm suspected of spreading disinformation about the Ukrainian government and fake news about the situation on the front line, allegedly with the help of a lawmaker who is “a part of the close circle of the former leadership of the state.”

The SBU statement does not name any particular political party or lawmakers in its statement published on Aug. 2. But the Ukrainiska Pravda media outlet and the Interfax Ukraine news agency reported that, according to their sources in law enforcement, the lawmaker in question is from the European Solidarity Party, which is led by former President Petro Poroshenko.

Lawmakers in Poroshenko’s party swiftly denied any involvement.

According to the SBU, the suspects used over one million fake online accounts, or so-called bots, and social media networks with an audience of over 400,000 users to distribute content about Ukraine’s leadership in an effort to “destabilize the socio-political situation” in the country.

Among the suspects’ latest disinformation campaigns was the alleged conflict between the President’s Office and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Lieutenant General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, as well as information aimed at discrediting First Lady Olena Zelenska, the SBU said.

The alleged cybercriminals were backed by Russia, the SBU said, with its leader identified as “a Russian citizen living in Kyiv who had positioned himself as a political expert.”

The SBU alleged that the man organized the information-subversive activities on the order of one of Ukraine’s political parties. In order to coordinate disinformation campaigns, “he was in contact with a current lawmaker who is part of the close circle of the former leadership of our state,” the SBU said.

Iryna Gerashchenko, the co-chair of the 25-seat European Solidarity faction, wrote on Facebook that “our team categorically denies any involvement in any so-called bot farms, especially pro-Russian ones.”

Gerashenko instead blamed “media outlets that cite some anonymous, unnamed sources trying to tie our political power to this provocation,” calling the reports “a dishonor and execution of the political will of (those in) power.”

This isn’t the first time a political party in Ukraine, including Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party, has been accused of using bots to attack political rivals. Bots tied to political parties and PR agencies to sway public opinion are common in the country.

In July of 2020, Facebook removed dozens of fake accounts linked to a Ukrainian marketing group called Postmen for spreading offensive content about Ukrainian politicians during the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. It was unclear at the time who Postmen was working for, as the content spread “black PR” about several Ukrainian politicians.

Later that year, in December, Facebook removed 27 user accounts, 37 Pages, 21 Groups, and 13 Instagram accounts, saying its investigation had found links to individuals associated with the European Solidarity party.

Russia has also engaged in cybercrime to advance its narratives in Ukraine. Since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, Russia has consistently conducted disinformation campaigns, as well as clandestine malware attacks, against Ukraine.

Notably, on April 1, the SBU said it had shut down an operation that was able to send around 5,000 text messages to police and members of Ukraine’s Armed Forces telling them to surrender and defect before it was stopped.

Earlier, in mid-March, the Security Service said it detained a hacker who had been providing information to Russian troops in Ukraine by using Ukrainian phone networks to help Russian military communications.

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Illia Ponomarenko, defense reporter
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