Cyber attacks against online news sites in Ukraine (2013-2014)

Disclaimer: In May 2014 in Boston I defended my master thesis about the role of social media in popular protests in Ukraine (2013-2014). Publishing excerpts of thesis, the following one – about cyber attacks.

The growing role of the Internet in serving up news for the audiences has a positive influence on maintaining media freedoms worldwide. The opponents of free speech respond with cyber attacks targeting news sites and social media. Ukraine is a case. In 2013-2014, Ukraine witnessed an increased number of cyber attacks against independent online media and media activists. According to an IMI report, 49 cyber attacks against journalists in Ukraine were made in 2013.

The attacks reflect a general pattern of silencing Internet voices during protests in many countries. The attempts to shut down the Internet were carried out during the uprisings in Iran in 2009, Egypt in 2011, and Syria in 2012. Even in Turkey, the country that aspires to join the EU, the government blocked Twitter and Facebook upon the rise of anti-government protests in March 2014.

During the protests in Ukraine in 2013-2014, unidentified hackers applied different strategies of cyber war. First of all, they attempted to crack users’ emails and files. For example, in October 2014, the computer of Oksana Romanyuk, the executive director of the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), was hacked, and the private email correspondence was leaked publicly.

Also, hackers targeted social networks and news sites through distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack as an attempt to make a machine or network resource unavailable to its intended user.

winter timeOn December 2, 2013, the site of Ukrainska Pravda was under a DDoS attack. It was the first identified attack against a news resource from the time the protests began on November 21, 2013.

On December 13, 2013, Cityband.com.ua, a resource that had published a map
of protests in Kyiv, was shut down. The notice on its front page said: “Our site is under DDoS attack. We had to close hosting. Sorry, friends. Instead we have created a more informative map on Yandex – Cityband Euromaidan.”

On December 14, 2013, journalists at Liga.net posted a message to their official page in Facebook: “We are currently under a very strong DDoS attack. Our technical team is fighting the night through.” The site http://www.yanukovich.info, that published findings on corruption schemes of President Yanukovych’s family, was shut down by DDoS attacks for a couple of days in the middle of December 2013.

Unknown hackers have likewise attacked other online news resources covering the Ukrainian protests – Glavcom.ua, Censor.net and RadioSvoboda.org.

In addition to cyber attacks, the work of journalists and independent online resources was challenged by unidentified journalists who launched fake sites, which echoed popular news sites. In particular, Ukrainska Pravda discovered two copycat sites, launched in summer 2013. The first, Ukrainska Kryvda, stole the design of Ukrainska Pravda and published biased anti-opposition articles.

By launching Ukrainska Kryvda, initiators violated copyright laws, registered their site in Russia and located their hosting in Australia, having protected the identity of the people behind the site.

The second site stole the brand “Ukrainska Pravda” and registered domain name similar to pravda.com.ua – ukrpravda.ua. Both fake sites demonstrated that the methods to combat independent journalism in Ukraine had become more sophisticated. As of March 2014 both fake sites have been deactivated after months of their activity.

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Research: The ISIS Twitter Census by Brookings

ISIS Screenshot at Mar 09 14-31-52

On March 4, 2015, Brookings published a special report targeting the issue of ISIS social media presence. The authors have identified 40,000 ISIS supporters on Twitter. How does it work? What does it mean in the conflicts of 21 century?

The core findings by the researchers are the following:

  • In October through November 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters.
  • A sample of 20,000 confirmed ISIS supporters was examined to extract demographics data, with a plurality of users apparently residing in the territories controlled by the Islamic State. The second-most common location for ISIS supporters was Saudi Arabia.
  • Nearly one in five ISIS supporting accounts designated English as their primary language. Almost three quarters selected Arabic, and one in 20 selected French.
  • Thousands of accounts have been suspended by Twitter since October 2014, measurably degrading ISIS’s ability to project its propaganda to wider audiences.

Note: last year I published the research on the role of social media in popular protests in Ukraine

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Careful examination of the power of social media in Ukraine during #euromaidan

A team of authors within Carnegie Corporation research project has recently published a report “Protest in the Age of Social Media.” The authors (Joshua A. Tucker, Megan Metzger, Duncan Penfold-Brown, Richard Bonneau, John Jost, Jonathan Nagler) analyze how Ukrainian opposition leaders and, more noticeably, civic activists used social media to reach audiences and bring the Yanukovych regime down. The authors are looking for implications of social media impact:

If social media is indeed changing the ways in which protests emerge and evolve, then what is learned about the Ukrainian situation will provide important lessons for understanding and anticipating political developments all over the world.

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The authors suggest to view the impact of social media in Ukraine in three main dimensions, focusing on the use of #euromaidan / #євромайдан hashtags and Facebook updates:

First, social media can help to build a protest movement, and it can do so with remarkable speed. Second, once a movement exists, social media can play an important role in recruiting new members and encouraging participation. Third, once protests are in full swing, social media can spread information about them.

The interest of researchers for the impact of social media use in Ukraine in 2013-2014 remains high and leads to new publications from worldwide aiming to undestand the nature of social media interaction as a vibrant medium of public discussions and self-organization. Just to remind, in Boston, in May 2014, I have published my thesis about the role of social media in news gethering in Ukraine.

Agenda setting in newsgathering during anti-government protests 2013-2014 in Ukraine. Segment 2 of my thesis

Chapter 1 (pp.11-12)

To analyze media activism we should ask, who are the actors and what is their background? To implement media activism online, users should have at least relevant experience in blogging, civic activism and the media industry to understand how to successfully inform about the issues they address. In Ukraine, many successful online initiatives during anti-government protests were launched either by representatives of non-profits or journalists with solid experience in the fields. Thus, their experience helped to bring professional standards to grassroots initiatives, making them more noticeable to the eyes of professional media.

One of the examples to illustrate agenda setting by civic activists was the initiative of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center – a temporary institution launched by Ukrainian media experts and public relation specialists in early March 2014. The idea of the center was motivated by the misbalance of media coverage about Ukraine during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in Crimea. The majority of state-owned Russian media used propaganda as a tool to mislead audiences about events in Ukraine. Russian coverage also targeted international media. In response, the initiators of the Center gave a floor to speakers from the Ukrainian government and representatives of the expert community. The center also invited foreign and local journalists, providing them with first hand information, thus encouraging them to generate news within the international and local informational flow, and thus sustaining the Ukrainian point of view on the conflict.

Full text of thesis available herehttps://grassglobal.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/thesisvitaliimorozfinal.pdf 

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Defended: Master’s thesis about the role of social media during the protests in Ukraine

On May 30, 2014, at Emerson College, Boston, I have defended my thesis titled Agenda setting in newsgathering during anti-government protests 2013-2014 in Ukraine. The impact of social media on news organizations. Chair – Prof. Melinda Robins, Ph.D., Graduate Program Director of Journalism Department at Emerson College.

I plan to publish it on this blog soon, now, please find the abstract:

Following the Orange revolution in 2004, popular protests of Ukrainian citizens in 2013-2014 for the second time in the last ten years altered the political regime in the country. In the battle against the corrupt government, protesters have demonstrated a sophisticated use of the Internet and social media tools in news dissemination and mobilization of activism. This study investigates another dimension of the protests – the media effects of social media on news organizations within the framework of agenda setting theory. How user-generated content influenced media coverage of the protests by professional news sites and which issues have been perceived as important for public awareness. Based on a case study of one of the leading news sites and a popular Facebook page initiative, I research the agenda setting on the mainstream media. 

defended

With Dr.Emmanuel Paraschos, Ph.D. and Prof. Melinda Robins, Ph.D., Graduate Program Director