In an abandoned garage in Vinnytsia, three hours’ drive southwest of Kyiv, Ukraine’s Cyber Police burst in on an outwardly unassuming building. A search of the building revealed 3,300 SIM cards, each with its own fake identity. This raid was part of ongoing joint operations around Ukraine targeting Russian bot farms – with the most recent takedown just a few weeks ago seizing an additional 150,000 SIM cards. The Russians use these bots to impersonate Ukrainian citizens, spread disinformation, and disseminate propaganda about the war.
Russia has a history of using these disinformation bots to their advantage and has leveraged the power of social media during their invasion to send out more than 500 messages per SIM card per day meant to demoralize Ukrainians and instigate division among Western allies. In April, Russia boasted that only 1% of these fake accounts are caught by social media platforms’ own systems, meaning that the best chance of keeping these bots from running rampant is to stop them at the source.
In today’s interconnected world especially, the information – or misinformation – war is as important as the fighting on the ground. While donating military resources is essential, comprehensive aid and support must also entail helping mitigate the spread of disinformation and taking measures to guarantee that all our material aid and resources find their way into the hands of the Ukrainians who need them.
For Ukrainian Cyber Police and other law enforcement agents, dismantling these bot farms is only one example among many of the Soviet-style corruptive tactics that Russia uses to undermine truth.
In the first month of the war in Ukraine alone, Microsoft’s Digital Security Unit observed 125 instances of Russian-attributed cyber attacks launched against Ukraine. These attacks attempted to defame Volodymyr Zelenskiy and spread false claims in an effort to discredit the Ukrainian government and divide the country. These disinformation campaigns circulate through social media, where thousands of Russian bot accounts use their platforms to push false narratives, documentation, and manipulated media in an attempt to control the dominant narrative, justify their invasion and war crimes, and deflect blame onto Ukraine.
Ukraine has increasingly taken steps to combat Putin’s latest attempt to embroil the country and the world in yet another disinformation campaign regarding the war. At times, this has even entailed looking within to stop any internal infiltration. For instance, the country has initiated grassroots efforts, created an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission and taken other measures to maintain proper allocation of resources during wartime and ensure the world knows the truth about what’s happening on the ground – and hear it from real Ukrainian people, not bots.
Western allies have also been mindful of monitoring the path of donated weaponry and other resources intended for Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, the United States alone has sent more than $75 billion in humanitarian, financial, and military support efforts. The highly sophisticated weapons systems, training, and intelligence provided to Ukraine’s military, which have been instrumental in their counteroffensive, would be equally devastating if Russia ended up in possession of them.
Fortunately, in my recent visit to Ukraine, I spoke to Olena Tregub of the organization Transparency International, who said that the diligence that Western allies have taken in their arms donation has been crucial to Ukraine’s war effort. “Every item, even down to the level of a Stinger, has a barcode, and both we and the Americans track everything.” In her view, it may be the most carefully monitored military aid in history.
Beyond combating corruption, this system is also helpful for efficiency: at any moment, Western allies and Ukrainian officials know where an item is, whether it’s in a warehouse or being used at the front.
Russia’s efforts to undermine Ukraine’s progress and reliability warfare through misinformation campaigns are only a threat if we choose to listen to social media rather than Ukrainian officials and citizens directly. With the aid of Western resources, Ukrainian Cyber Police are making headway in their efforts to shut down these bot farms and fight propaganda with truth. For allied countries, supporting Ukraine means not only sharing material weaponry to the front lines but also combating misinformation and corruption at every turn. Ukraine’s success in this war depends on it.
Harvard graduate Mitzi Perdue is a writer, speaker, and author of the award-winning biography of Relentless, the story of Mark Victor Hansen, the Chicken Soup for the Soul co-author. All royalties for this book will go to supporting humanitarian relief for Ukraine.