February 27, Nigerian web designer, Olalekan Owonikoko was absent from Twitter when a friend shared a screenshot of a tweet from his account, knowing full well it was not the kind of post Owonikoko would make. . After seeing the screenshot, Owonikoko was confused as he hadn’t posted the message.
A few days earlier, the Russian government had launched an offensive against a neighboring country in Eastern Europe, Ukraine. But we’re an internet world, so the war has spilled over to social media as well, with each side trying to control the narrative online. A huge propaganda war is underway and social media has been crucial in sharing updates and disinformation about the war. TikTok was used to share updates on the Russian army’s march to Ukraine, while on the other side of the war, 27-year-old Russian TikTokker Niki Proshin live-streamed a protest anti-war in Russia. The photo-sharing app, Instagram, is used by freelance journalist Ilya Varlamov to record videos and take photos that depict his version of Russia’s military action. Within days, Ukrainian influencer Anna Prytula moved away from her lifestyle posts to show images of missiles attacking her country on Instagram. Social media has also seen the rise of “war pages” – Instagram meme pages that promise to share updates on the conflict in Ukraine, but are fake pages hoping to make money from ads.
On February 26, social media accounts linked to Buffer, the social media scheduling tool, were hacked to spread support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine under the hashtag #SupportRussia. “It was clearly not the kind of content I would share,” Owonikoko said. “My friend knew this and wanted to be sure that I hadn’t shared such a thing. I took a minute to be sure that I hadn’t engaged with such content and accidentally shared it. He was clear that my account had been hacked,” said Owonikoko, who noted that although his Twitter account is set up on Buffer, he rarely uses the app. Like most propaganda and disinformation campaigns, the accounts shared the same tweet, with the same social media, and at the same time.
Dampen issued a statement on February 26, where he admitted that Buffer accounts had been hacked to share unauthorized messages that support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Buffer revealed that 1,552 accounts were affected, while 618 accounts posted 766 unauthorized content on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Buffer revealed in its statement that none of the 1,552 affected accounts had 2-factor authentication (2FA) enabled and attributed the hack to reused passwords.
Twitter user, @Downtownrob, revealed that he does not have two-factor authentication (2FA) on his account and uses a virtual assistant, Fancy Hands, who publishes WordPress articles for him via Buffer.
TechCabal’s Twitter account, which is linked to Buffer, was compromised and also shared the propaganda tweet. The newsroom was alerted to the development; we removed the tweet and share a statement on Twitter clarifying the situation.
This is not the first time that Russia has tried to shape international opinion about its invasion of Ukraine. In 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a network of trolls, bots and spam accounts focused on denying a military presence on the peninsula. However, Russia’s disinformation campaign goes beyond Ukraine; they affect users everywhere. For example, a report on Facebook threats published last May found that Russia’s biggest disinformation campaigns targeted Ghana, the United States and Mexico.
A few days ago, Facebook deactivated a disinformation network of about 40 accounts spreading false information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Twitter said it removed disinformation networks related to the Ukraine conflict. With a limitless propaganda and disinformation campaign spreading across social media, it is imperative that users take digital security measures more seriously and be careful about the information they consume on social media, especially in this moment.