Highlights

  • Russia and Ukraine use social media to fight an online battle
  • Deepfakes of Zelensky and Putin surface on the Internet
  • Deciphering the truth online becomes tougher every day

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Decoded | Russia-Ukraine war: are we heading towards disinformation dystopia?

Disinformation in war is not new, but the tools have changed. As the Russian offensive on Ukraine rages on the ground, there's a digital offensive that's making this war far more ominous. 

The year is 1941, and German broadcaster Der Chef is reaching the homes of civilians with complaints of corruption in the Nazi ranks, worrying news about German soldiers abroad, and gossip about the wives of officials. His accent, knowledge and loyalty to Hitler suggest that he’s a high-ranking officer in the military. German listeners are hooked, and convinced he’s bringing them the inside truth on the regime. But here’s the real truth - Der Chef doesn’t exist. He’s been created by a British journalist, Sefton Delmer - in his effort to spread chaos in Germany, leading the psychological war by the Allied powers.

Disinformation in war is not new, but the tools have changed.

As the Russian offensive on Ukraine rages on the ground, there's a digital offensive that's making this war far more ominous. We often say 'seeing is believing', perhaps not anymore.

Recently, a video of Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky went viral online. He was speaking at a podium bearing the Ukrainian state emblem, in his signature olive green t-shirt and the video seems like just another televised message to Ukrainians. But the message he was conveying in the video was far from his own. Zelensky was asking Ukrainian soldiers to put down their arms and surrender to Russian forces.

The one-minute clip was a deepfake - broadcast on Ukrainian TV, possibly by Russian hackers
A deepfake is a form of synthetic media which uses AI to create fake images, which can attach a face and voice to another person’s body, matching their likeness - to create a doctored video where you can make any person say anything. Now, that video of the Ukrainian president was a bad attempt at a deepfake and it was easily caught. Zelensky’s face didn't move, his neck was stiff, complexion off - and so on. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were quick to take it down - Zelensky himself called it a childish provocation

Also watch | Ukraine-Russia war: How hackers are fighting on the online battlefield

Even the Russian President was not spared. Deepfake videos of Putin announcing peace also did the rounds of social media.

Ukraine is also trying to create a narrative to help in morale boosting. The story of the Ghost of Kyiv, was one such example. A fighter pilot who shot down ten Russian jets on day one of the invasion, a high impact video of the combat was also tweeted by Ukranian officials. However, fact checking websites found that the video of the dogfight is from the 2013 PC game Digital Combat Simulator: World.

Another piece of fake news that went viral from Kiev was the supposed 13 Ukrainian ‘martyrs’ who in an act of ‘defiance’ said “Russian warship, go f*** yourself” when urged to surrender Snake Island. The Ukrainian soldiers are actually all alive.

By selectively amplifying targeted disinformation on social media, Russia is leading a classic Gerasimov style shadow war where it's hard to fight an enemy you can't see, or aren't even sure is there. For Russia, manipulating the external narrative is also getting tougher, since Kremlin backed news outlets have been banned in across the European Union and Twitter and Facebook are limiting their reach.

Also watch| US-India 2+2 dialogue amid Russia-Ukraine crisis: What next for India-US ties?

Sophisticated technology and difficulty in regulating misinformation, along with the ease with which virtually anyone can share content are all adding up to a situation where deciphering the truth is become a near impossible task. Gartner Inc. predicted in 2018 that by the time 2022 rolls around - most people in mature economies will consume more false information than factual.
So, for anyone who’s inundated with information while scrolling through social media, it’s important to pause and ask, "can I trust this source?”

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