Next Step in Disinformation: How a Dating App Becomes a Weapon

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Not exactly to do with books, but PG is reading dystopian science fiction at the moment (Winter World by A.G. Riddle) and enjoying it, so, inasmuch as the OP felt a bit dystopian, it piqued PG’s interest and he thought it might also be a writing prompt.

From Just Security:

While the world grapples with Russia’s use of Twitter and Facebook to spread disinformation, a former NATO secretary-general recently voiced concerns that Russia was using Ukraine’s upcoming elections as a laboratory for new forms of interference. A troubling case may signal that disruptive innovation is already underway in the post-Soviet space, whether by Russia or by others: ruthless operatives in Ukraine have weaponized the dating application Tinder for political purposes.

The new case involves character assassination by means of fake digital avatars. This inexpensive and efficient disinformation strategy not only destroys reputations, but also threatens to cause social and political disruption on a national scale.

. . . .

On Nov. 7, 2018, a Facebook account belonging to Ukrainian university student Natalia Bureiko published a post accusing a top police official of sexual harassment. Her post included screenshots of a purported Tinder conversation with Officer Oleksandr Varchenko. In the screen shots, “Varchenko” threatens Bureiko when she turns down his demand for a sexual relationship.

Bureiko’s Facebook post claimed that Varchenko mailed her flowers with a box of raw chicken legs, and that he also had harassed her family and friends. In addition to posting the information on Facebook, Bureiko filed a formal complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office (the Ukrainian equivalent of a district attorney).

Her post became an overnight media sensation. It racked up several thousand comments and shares in just a few days. Almost all of the comments expressed outrage, not just at Varchenko, but at the police and government as a whole.

The only problem: The Tinder account and conversations were fake.

Varchenko denied the allegations, writing on Facebook that he had never corresponded with Bureiko and that “this information attack is related to the fact that my wife, Olha Varchenko, is the first Deputy Director of the State Bureau of Investigations, and for many it was a bone in the throat.”

Two days later, Bureiko posted a retraction on Facebook and then disappeared from the public eye for three weeks. When she resurfaced in an interview with Strana.ua, Bureiko claimed that someone she knew had offered to pay her roughly 50 U.S. dollars in exchange for access to her Facebook account. That same individual, Bureiko said, forced her to file the complaint at the prosecutor’s office, saying that would be the only way she could get her normal life back. Bureiko never named the person who allegedly did this. In this bombshell interview, Bureiko expressed regret at being used to facilitate a fake news campaign.

Shortly thereafter, Bureiko turned herself in to the Ukrainian police, reported the scheme to the police, and started living in an undisclosed location under the protection of Ukrainian law enforcement.

On Dec. 10, 2018, the Chief Military Prosecutor in the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine said he had identified 11 people involved in recent information attacks, including the Tinder scandal. The two suspects most closely tied to the Tinder attack are the infamous Ukrainian “political technologist” Volodymyr Petrov, and his friend, a blogger and former advisor to the minister of information policy, Oleksandr Baraboshko.

. . . .

Tinder may be a testing ground for developing the technology that combines “kompromat” (the Russian term for compromising information) and digital platforms. The Tinder attack clearly follows the pattern of Russian kompromat, a sabotage technique favored by the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB.

. . . .

Kompromat has never been easier or cheaper to manufacture. Creating a fake Tinder conversation does not require sophisticated technological capabilities. Anyone can do it. It is also cheap.

“In the 1990s, an individual seeking to discredit a rival could place a compromising news article in the most popular Russian daily newspaper, paying between $8,000 and $30,000 for it,” according to University of Washington Associate Professor Katy Pearce. “A television story to disgrace someone could cost between $20,000 and $100,000.”

Creating a dating app account, however, is free. So is posting on social media. Anyone can invent kompromat and then deploy it to the world.

The media environment in Ukraine was ripe for promoting the fake Tinder exchange via Facebook. In 2017, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko banned the country’s two most popular Russian social networks, Vkontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki. Since that time, Facebook’s Ukrainian audience has grown dramatically, by about 3 million in the past year alone. Nowadays, Facebook is the predominant social media platform in the country and therefore a powerful tool for shaping public opinion.

. . . .

First, this type of digital campaign creates fake digital personalities, avatars that live forever online. Once disinformation is released, it persists on the internet. Even today, if one enters the Cyrillic spelling of Oleksandr Varchenko’s name into a search engine, his name appears amid a cloud of words like “harassment,” “scandal,” and “Tinder.” Controversial headlines are followed by images of the “Varchenko” Tinder account’s conversation with “Natalia Bureiko” and the photo of a gift-wrapped box of chicken legs. Oleksandr Varchenko’s public image is forever tarnished by a digital avatar that was created and managed by someone else.

. . . .

Third, and most sinister, the Varchenko-Bureiko Tinder scandal could be the beginning of a new phase of disinformation emanating from the former Soviet Union.

The social media environment makes it easy for people to represent themselves online, but also makes it easy for people to fraudulently misrepresent others in the digital world. As digital avatars proliferate across platforms, verifying account ownership without compromising personal privacy becomes a challenge. This case demonstrates the frightening ease of using dating apps and social media to create social disruption and political turmoil.

Link to the rest at Just Security

In the old days of the Cold War between the Soviets and their Eastern European satellites and the West, the conflict provided lots of fodder for riveting books – think Tom Clancy and John le Carré – but lately, a much-shrunken Russia, with an economy based on selling oil to the West seems more like a Middle-Eastern fiefdom than an existential threat to a great many readers.

But, social media is free and credulous journalists are never in short supply, so perhaps some sort of online Cold War can be fashioned for the benefit of those who miss the old days.

James Bond as a suave computer engineering genius will take some serious creative work (“A Kombucha. Shaken, not stirred.”), but PG suspects the Ian Fleming estate might be interested in a discussion.

8 thoughts on “Next Step in Disinformation: How a Dating App Becomes a Weapon”

  1. Only a matter of time before faked photos appear of PG on a date with Randy Penguin?

    The diabolical plot to discredit our beloved PG would likely be funded by the Vanity Press Cartel.

    • Good point, Felix. I’ve been following a few of the stories about China’s efforts to build a Social Credit System as a means of controlling the population.

      One thought that occurred to me is whether a government faction planning a coup to seize power would include plans to take control of the Social Credit System so the coup leaders could cut off access to a wide range of services – internet, cell phone, access to public transportation, etc., for the targets of the coup and their supporters.

      • It would have to be.
        Step one in a campaign to polarize the society and turn it against the entrenched powers.

        Way back in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS the lunar rebels did just that. The central computer had gone sentient and aligned with the would be rebels. First they polarized the city, then they sparked riots. Good old Mycroft started “playing jokes”. Then it just locked the UN Troops in their barracks and the revolutionary committees took over.

        A country with a social credit system would be open to all kinds of disruption: null-ing the government aparatchicks, sending the police and the troops to the hinterlands or to suppress each other. Flooding citizens’ accounts with cash. Turning off utilities in different zones, herding flash crowds hither and yon.

        At at one point or another we’ll see all that. If not by rebels, by criminals covering their tracks.

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