Cyber police in Ukraine have taken down a large-scale bot farm outside of Kyiv – they say was used to create thousands of fake online accounts to push a pro-Russian agenda and discredit Ukrainian forces.
Investigators say the “Botoferma” had at least 4,000 fake social media accounts made to look like the accounts of ordinary citizens of Ukraine.
The bots were used to troll social media platforms, publish fake posts, and leave comments on other posts and profile accounts, badmouthing the Defense Forces of Ukraine while justifying the armed aggression of the Russian Federation, police said.
The Botoferma was used to “inform public opinion among Ukrainians in the interests of the enemy, and destabilize the socio-political situation in the country,” cybercrime investigators said.
Organizing the bot farm using Russian services, investigators say each day, the bad actors would registered about 500 anonymous accounts.
Besides social networking, the fake accounts were used on other platforms such as online trading sites and instant messenger sites, including those banned in Ukraine.
The suspects were paid in rubles (the official currency of the Russian Federation) for each bot they created, receiving payments equal to thousands of US dollars per month.
Police say the “botoferma” was found operating inside of a garage located in the west-central Ukrainian City of Vinnytsia, located about 150 miles southwest of Kyiv.
During a search of the garage, police found a disarray of computer equipment containing evidence of illegal activities, multiple mobile phones, more than 3,300 SIM cards of Ukrainian and European mobile operators, and 13 SIM gateways.
Law enforcement also found bank cards that the criminals used to receive money from "clients."
Police said the suspects would use sanctioned payment systems such as "WebMoney" and "PerfectMoney,” to collect their payments.
Once received, those payments were then converted into cryptocurrency and transferred to the controlled bank cards.
Three unnamed suspects, all residents of Vinnytsia, aged 30, 38, and 42, are being sought by law enforcement in connection with running the bot farm, along with several other perpetrators, according to Vinnytsia regional police chief Ivan Ishchenko.
The three individuals are being charged with unauthorized interference in the work of automated information, electronic communication, information and communication systems, and electronic communication networks under Ukrainian law.
The suspects face up to 15 years in prison each if convicted.
Fighting Russian propaganda
The sheer scale of social media use in the Russia-Ukraine war has been unprecedented, and the impact significant.
The Russian propaganda machine, which has been targeting Ukraine since 2014, is a constant barrage of fake news stories and accounts, conspiracy theories, doctored images, and manipulated videos that have become more effective through social media.
Besides discrediting opponents, disinformation campaigns are a form of psychological warfare, creating a sense of fear, confusion, uncertainty, or doubt among the targeted population, according to experts.
Last month, the Ukrainian AI start-up Osavul – launched in the aftermath of the Russian invasion last spring – successfully raised $1 million to develop a large language AI platform to help counter Russian disinformation.
And in March, another anti-Russian propaganda group, the PR Army of Ukraine, held a Voices of Freedom event to warn Western journalists of manipulation from Russian disinformation campaigns.
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