Sending push notifications via face swap app…

Sending push notifications via a face-swapping app, adding photos of the devastation of the bombings in Ukraine to Google Maps, hacking into electric chargers… These are some of the tricks used by Ukrainians to circumvent strict censorship of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to ensure that accurate information about the war in Ukraine reaches ordinary Russians.

President Putin has blocked or limited access to foreign media coverage in Russia of the war in Ukraine, including Facebook and Twitter. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications and media watchdog, has also passed a censorship law forbidding Russian journalists to use the words “war”, “invasion” or “offensive” when talking about the “special operation” in Ukraine.

In response, ordinary Ukrainians have found creative ways to counter the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign and let people in Russia know what is really going on.

Ukrainian face-swap app sent push alerts to two million Russian users

Kyiv-based face-swapping app Reface has launched a global information campaign to spread information, share photos of destruction in Ukrainian cities and encourage its users to support Ukraine. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to the company’s CEO, Dima Shvets.

When Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time, we sent a push notification to our users with a message: “Russia invaded Ukraine”. Users who opened the app then received more details of the situation on the ground, including images and videos.

A push notification shared with Reface users when Russia invaded Ukraine (left) and a photo on the app (left). © Reface

Nine million notifications have currently been sent around the world and two million have been delivered to users in Russia. We also moved up to seventh place in the US App Store.

Our app was previously used to take users’ faces and put them on celebrities’ bodies. Since the invasion of Russia, we have encouraged everyone to turn into President Zelensky.

All new videos created by the app have a watermark that includes the Ukrainian flag and the hashtag #StandWithUkraine.

Photo of Zelensky on the Reface app © Reface
Example of #StandwithUkraine watermark on Reface app
Example of #StandwithUkraine watermark on Reface app © Reface

“The food is good, but the war in Ukraine is not”

On Monday, February 28, the hacking group “Anonymous” tricked people into leaving fake reviews of Russian businesses and restaurants on Google Maps to inform citizens about the conflict in Ukraine. The group tweeted: “Go to Google Maps. Go to Russia. Find a restaurant or business and write a review. When you write the review, explain what is happening in Ukraine.

The tweet quickly gained popularity. Critics filled across Russia with news about the conflict in Ukraine. For example, one of the reviews for a Moscow restaurant called Romantic reads: “5,800 Russian soldiers died today, 4,500 yesterday. Stop your aggression, don’t let your children suffer, if you go to war you won’t come back”. Another review for the same place reads: “Great food, but your chef is killing innocent people in Ukraine!!! Stop this war.

Screenshot from Google Maps showing restaurants in Moscow.
Screenshot from Google Maps showing restaurants in Moscow. © Google Maps

Google Maps allows users to upload photos of locations – usually as part of a spot review – but users have also used this feature to get images of Ukraine in Russia.

One of the images frequently posted for these locations is a screenshot of a phone believed to have belonged to a Russian soldier, showing an apparent text conversation with his mother (see below).

Google Maps has since disabled reviews in Russia and Ukraine after it was used as a space to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement, “Due to a recent increase in content contributed to Google Maps related to the war in Ukraine, we have implemented additional safeguards to monitor and prevent content that violates our Strategies for Maps, including temporarily blocking new reviews, photos and videos in the area.

‘Putin is a ***head’: Russian electric chargers hacked to show support for Ukraine

In a more organized effort, Russian electric charging points for cars were hacked to display messages of support for Ukraine, which included “Glory to Ukraine” and “Putin is a *** head”.

Caption: A car charging station on the M11 highway in Russia

In one Facebook postRussian energy company Rosseti, claimed that the Ukrainian company that supplied some of the parts had hacked the charging stations it still had access to.

This effort is part of a wave of cyber campaigns targeting Russia. The international hacking collective “Anonymous” has claimed responsibility for various cyberattacks, including on Russian state broadcaster RT and over 300 Russian websites.

The moves came after “Anonymous” declared himself to be in a “cyberwar campaign against Putin and his allies”.

“We must not underestimate the power of Putin’s information war”

Can campaigns like this have a meaningful impact? The FRANCE 24 Observers team interviewed Valentina Shapovalova, a specialist in Russian media and propaganda at the University of Copenhagen.

I think it is still too early to see the effectiveness of these measures. But it’s still incredibly interesting to see how many ordinary citizens participate in bottom-up counter-propaganda measures and how creative they become.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the strength of Putin’s information warfare, he’s been stifling the information space for decades and now there’s very little room for anything else enters the minds of citizens. The same stories have been replayed in the Russian media for years, Putin baiting the Russians with his propaganda efforts. And when you tell the same story over and over again, people start to believe it’s true. It’s so deeply rooted that reviews on Google Maps may not have the impact they should.

Another very important strategy that the Kremlin has used is to create confusion and fog, to spit out so many stories and so many conflicting images and news that people become confused and no longer know what the truth is.

Some of the big stories that the government passed on to the Russians include the story that the Ukrainian government is a Nazi government installed by the West, that the Russian-speaking people of Ukraine have been oppressed since 2014, and that the Ukrainian government is practicing genocide.

Over a million people have already fled Ukraine and hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed as a result of the war.

About Donald J. Beadle

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