News Brief

Ukraine elections marred by disinformation wars

Ukraine has long been occupied territory for Russia’s disinformation war machine. Ahead of the weekend presidential elections, which has been riddled with fake news and cyber attacks, the country went on alert bracing for more destabilizing efforts to upend the vote.

Ahead of Sunday, incumbent leader President Petro Poroshenko barred Russian social networks, the search engine Yandex and dozens of Russia-tied websites in Ukraine.

That came in the wake of Russian state-aligned media denouncing the outcome of the first round of voting— which saw Poroshenko finish a distant second to dark horse candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a rigged contest. Online Russian accounts went as far as linking Zelenskiy, without any evidence,  to the Notre Dame blaze. Russian media also accused the British ambassador of breaking the Ukrainian election law. The campaign process also saw Russian cyber-attacks as well as waves of posts from vigorous accounts on social media impersonating presidential candidates.

Ukrainians have criticized Moscow as seeking to undermine their 2014 elections in one of the world’s first documented offensive cyberattacks. More recently, Russian authorities have used  fake accounts and bots to effect election outcomes. This year,in Ukraine, the Kremlin took a different route. Along with small online tricks, its main goal has been undermining the credibility of elections process and Ukraine itself, says Ukrainian Election Task Force, a project created in partnership with the Atlantic Council.

In 2019 the authenticity of information circulating online has been difficult to discern because rather than a single foreign actor orchestrating online debates, Ukrainians themselves have been involved in the divisive and outlandish news wars. One late-breaking example was news sites  within the country saying that Zelensky’s campaign could be funded by Ukrainian separatists linked to the Kremlin.

Russian talking points ahead of the election have accentuated the deep divisions between the leading Ukrainian politicians and emphasized the alleged impossibility of the country ever being united. Another talking point in Kremlin’s narrative is to undermine trust in the presidential office. Russian officials and media vigorously claim that regardless of the winner of Sunday’s poll, all candidates participating are the puppets of the West.

Such statements aim to not only discredit the election process but sow discord among the Ukrainians to the point where the people themselves become part of disinfo combatant armies as they start to distrust Ukraine’s democracy.