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Massive Russian disinfo campaign targeted former Ukraine’s Defense Minister on TikTok

A joint DFRLab and BBC Verify investigation has exposed a Russian disinformation operation on TikTok that used about 12,800 accounts to falsely accuse Oleksii Reznikov, former Defense Minister of Ukraine, of corruption.
ukraine defense minister oleksiy reznikov 11 ramstein meeting russia approaching nuremberg 2
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, an illustrative image/ Source: Telegram, @RBC_ua_news
Massive Russian disinfo campaign targeted former Ukraine’s Defense Minister on TikTok

According to a joint investigation by the DFRLab and BBC Verify, a sophisticated Russian influence campaign has been targeting Oleksii Reznikov, the former Ukrainian Defense Minister, on TikTok. The campaign, described by TikTok as the largest information operation ever uncovered on the platform, involved spreading corruption accusations against Reznikov, implying he and the Ukrainian government were profiting from the ongoing war.

In late July 2023, this operation came to light when multiple posts on X (formerly Twitter) were observed republishing these TikTok videos. These accounts displayed a pattern in their narratives and methods, notably using AI-generated audio and uploading only one video per account. BBC Verify’s investigation uncovered hundreds of accounts engaging in similar tactics. To date, TikTok has removed over 12,800 accounts associated with this operation, which had garnered substantial attention, with over 847,000 subscribers and possibly hundreds of millions of views.

TikTok’s assessment indicates a high level of sophistication in the operation, with the perpetrators taking significant steps to hide their identities and activities. The platform confidently attributed the operation to a Russia-based source. This revelation aligns with ongoing Russian efforts to undermine Western support for Ukraine since the invasion began in February 2022. The DFRLab has documented similar attempts aimed at weakening Ukraine’s international standing.

The backdrop for these narratives is a real corruption case involving the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s procurement of food supplies. While Reznikov hasn’t been directly implicated, the ongoing scandal likely contributed to the traction these videos gained.

One notable instance in the operation was a video from the anonymous TikTok account @andreamiller421, making unfounded claims about Reznikov’s daughter purchasing a villa in Madrid. This account, along with others like @alfredboulanger1 and @vladyslavyashchenko1, made similar accusations with inconsistent details, thus raising questions about their legitimacy. These videos received significant attention on TikTok and were further amplified by pro-Russian bloggers and former Ukrainian politicians across various social media platforms.

A composite image annotating the TikTok video posted by the account @andeamiller421 (left) with a comparison of its profile picture and a higher resolution of the same image (bottom right) of US actor Chris Evans, as highlighted in red and a comparison of the property showcased in the video and the original photo (top right), highlighted in green. (Source: @andreamiller421/archive, left; E-architect/archive, top right; Wallpapers.com/archive, bottom right)

The campaign against Reznikov is not isolated; similar accusations have targeted other Ukrainian officials. Despite some resilience among Ukrainian users against such messaging, the investigation shows the substantial reach and impact pro-Kremlin actors have achieved with these narratives.

Experts see this as the latest attempt by pro-Kremlin actors to undermine international support for Ukraine amid Russia’s continuing military invasion. By spreading false narratives about Ukrainian officials illegally profiting from the war, Russia aims to damage Ukraine’s credibility among its Western allies.

Earlier in December, Ukraine’s Center for Countering Disinformation warned about an upcoming disinformation campaign by foreign media. Western journalists with prior Russian experience are suspected of planning to spread false information about Ukraine’s leadership to divide society.

On 1 November 2023, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi reported that false information about him was being spread on the Internet, in particular through fake accounts using his name.

Based on reporting by Roman Osadchuk, “Massive Russian influence operation targeted former Ukrainian defense minister on TikTok,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), 14 December 2023.

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