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.
The Natalia Bureiko Case
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.
The chief military prosecutor announced that law enforcement authorities had seized 230,000 USD from a safe deposit box belonging to Petrov, and that the perpetrators of the sex scandal had received 10,000 USD as payment for their services. The source of that payment has not been publicly identified.
Petrov remains on house arrest, from where he launched his campaign for the March 31 presidential election. Baraboshko spent several days in jail but was released when his friends paid bail, set at the equivalent of $110,000.
The Ease of Disinformation Attacks
This disinformation attack is notable for how it dominated a nation’s news cycle, and for how simple it was to carry out.
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.
While there is no clear evidence of a Russian connection in the case, the events on Tinder unfolded shortly after the Kremlin, on Nov. 1, had issued a list of 332 Ukrainian individuals and 68 companies it was sanctioning, ostensibly for “unfriendly actions” against Russia. The list includes respected figures who have spoken out against Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, such as Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev and Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly. Another name on the list: Olha Varchenko.
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.
The Tinder story that was promoted on Facebook, and Bureiko’s subsequent retraction, divided the nation. Ukrainians picked sides and argued online. Some thought Bureiko was a victim, while others said she deserved jail time. News media covered the story, also failing to fact-check it before publishing their articles. The resulting public debate polarized Ukrainians, sowed distrust in the police and undermined the credibility of women who were subjected to harassment.
The grave personal and political consequences of such attacks are clear.
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.
Second, false information attacks foster societal distrust of the news media, government institutions, and others. People are right to be skeptical of organizations that repeatedly report incorrect information. But their skepticism is not the root problem; the erosion of institutional trustworthiness is. A society in which media, government, and others cannot be trusted will be persistently unhealthy and unstable.
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.
Dating apps are everywhere, and so are the means to represent oneself — or misrepresent someone else — on those platforms. America’s enemies know this.
Disinformation can be created on dating applications with only a minimal investment of time and money. Constructing the Varchenko-Bureiko scandal required only two fake – or manipulated — Tinder accounts, access to a social media platform, and a small amount of money to pay operatives to construct a smear campaign.
Weaponized use of online dating platforms could have dangerous social and political consequences, including an erosion of trust in government, institutions, and media.
For more details on this case and its implications, see the author’s recent white paper, published by the Rainey Center.
IMAGE: A smart phone with the icons for the dating apps Bumble, Tinder, SKOUT, OkCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel (CMB), Tastenbuds, Match, happn, and POF are seen on a screen in Hong Kong, in August 2018. (Photo by Yu Chun Christopher Wong/S3studio/Getty Images)