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Stifling Russian disinformation through hacktivism 'having the opposite effect'

Cyber security experts discuss the effect of hacktivist efforts in the region and why it may not be the right way of approaching conflict resolution

Cyber security experts have weighed in on the current role of tech in the Ukrainian conflict, agreeing that current action being taken across the industry may be counter-productive in achieving peace and stopping Russian disinformation.

Discussing the topic of Anonymous’ recent hijacking of Russian broadcasts to display footage taken from the war in Ukraine, Jen Ellis, VP of community and public affairs at Rapid7, said “I would theorise that it actually has the potential to do harm”.

The pulling out of Russia by big tech companies may have also made Russia's job of controlling the narrative of the war easier, said Lisa Forte, partner at Red Goat Cyber Security.

“I would actually speculate that if you have a situation where you have people who hack into media that people rely on, that they watch every day, to force images on people, I would imagine that actually could create a backlash,” said Ellis at the BCS Policy Jam webinar.

“And the population that you're trying to influence then says ‘this is exactly what our government's been telling us, look at how these people behave. They have no right to do this. And they are just force-feeding us stuff that is lies,’” she added.

This situation could ultimately assist Russia in controlling the narrative of the war, at least to its people. Russia has effectively outlawed independent journalism in recent weeks, with international reporters having to cease their coverage of the conflict through fear of prosecution.

When hacking group Anonymous announced the hijack of Russian state-controlled media organisations on Sunday, the announcement and resulting imagery was greeted warmly by Western social media users who are used to consuming - for the most part - balanced, independent coverage of current events. 

Such hacktivism that also aligns with Western beliefs tends to be received well. The situation was the same when Belarusian hacktivists recently hacked their country's rail network to disrupt the transportation of Russian weapons and troops to Ukraine prior to the conflict starting.

Dr Alexi Drew, senior researcher at RAND Europe, agreed with Ellis that this kind of hacktivism may have the opposite of the intended effect. She said any attempt to subvert the messages broadcast by Russia’s heavily state-controlled TV “is likely to cause some consternation”.

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“The cynic me would say that [the Anonymous broadcast hijack] probably cost a little bit of unrest and interest, but it probably did not last,” said Drew. “This is a very long-running, well-structured attempt to essentially shape the beliefs of a whole population, and a one-off, even a short period of time, is not going to undermine that quickly.”

Propaganda has been used by governments for centuries and it exists in all areas of the world. From democracies to dictatorships, there exists at least an element of propaganda in most societies, be it through government messaging or media advertising with undisclosed, hidden backers.

But whether or not it works shouldn’t mean we should stop trying, argued Dan Card, cyber security consultant at PwnDefend. “Do I think people are making an impact in a positive and negative way? Yes, both, because the fact that we don't know isn't a reason to not act... but I think that people should speak up and people should act appropriately.

"Because failure to do anything and failure to speak out against corruption, against crime, against essentially evil in the world, is how we get to this scenario we’re in.”

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