‘We couldn’t stop’: Fighting Russian disinformation from a war zone

By: ilma hasan&
February 24 2023

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‘We couldn’t stop’: Fighting Russian disinformation from a war zone

On February 24, 2022, Svitlana Slipchenko woke to the sounds of explosions. After checking on her family and friends, who asked her if she was thinking of leaving her flat in Kyiv to find shelter, Slipchenko got down to business: the weekly Zoom call at analytical platform VoxUkraine, where she and her colleagues planned how they would start covering Russia’s ‘special military operation,’ which continues to this day. 

Despite the chaos and fear surrounding the events, Slipchenko described the call as a formal one where the team divided their resources in order to best tackle the onslaught of disinformation that was anticipated. 

The team of analysts used to focus on fact-checking Ukrainian politicians, but on that morning, they all understood the need to pivot. 

“After a few hours of planning we started reviewing Russian disinformation on an hourly basis publishing reviews on what we were seeing,” Slipchenko told Logically. “We were on the clock 24/7, we could not stop for an hour for the first few days. We were not able to make ourselves stop.”

Over the last year, the team has relentlessly identified and debunked narratives despite Russian bombardments and power outages caused by the attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

“I saw explosions from the windows of my apartment, and it scared me a lot. I needed a day to stabilize myself,” Slipchenko said. “Then we continued with our work. We didn’t stop during the [electricity] shutdowns either, we got coworking spaces and worked like a family during these times.”

The Scope of the Problem

For Ukraine and Europe-based fact checkers who have spent the year tackling disinformation surrounding the war, it is this quantity of narratives and the breadth of their reach that has proved the biggest challenge, rather than the content or nature of the claims. 

Logically has found that false narratives conceived by the Russian government and media in the one year since the invasion have potentially reached tens of millions of English speakers. These findings are consistent with reports that have looked into the effects of these narratives – how claims such as “Ukraine is fascist” and misinformation about Ukrainian refugees have resulted in denigration and hostility towards Ukrainians.

Slipchenko and her team, who started monitoring Telegram from the first day of the invasion, identified 5,500 cases of disinformation, corresponding to 19 common narratives, being spread within Ukraine. Similarly, when monitoring Russian disinformation about Ukraine in Europe, the team found over 5,500 cases in online media from six countries including  Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.

“The thousands of cases of disinformation show us it’s about quantity versus quality, and that becomes a challenge to fight efficiently,” Slipchenko explained. 

Russia’s Disinformation Playbook

VoxUkraine found that Russian Telegram channels, as well as affiliated “Ukrainian channels” –  pro-Russian resources that claim they’re independent Ukrainian media creating content for local audience, played a crucial role in the spread of disinformation about Ukraine and the invasion.

"Russian channels were about what's happening in Russia, about the Russian agenda, economy, its politics and so on. But the pro-Russian channels are even more dangerous because they are trying to disseminate false news claiming to be the Ukrainian agenda," Slipchenko said.

An investigation by The Conversation found Russian government accounts were astroturfing – cross-posting each other's content to amplify anti-Ukrainian narratives. About 75 percent of tweets from 75 Russian government accounts, with a combined following of 7.3 million, were related to Ukraine. The accounts pushed false narratives about who was really controlling the country and allegations of war crimes. 

In a paper titled "The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model," the Pentagon-backed think tank RAND described contemporary Russian propaganda as distinctive because it is "rapid, continuous, repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency."

The United Kingdom government discovered that TikTok influencers were paid to amplify pro-Russian narratives. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also found evidence of "disinformation activities" that "amplified authentic messages by social media users that were consistent with Russia's viewpoint." 

The OECD also observed that Russian government accounts have been linked to “typo squatting,” where websites are registered with deliberately misspelled names that are easy to confuse with those of popular news organizations and then used to spread false information. "For example, Russian actors created a fake website of the Polish daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, to spread disinformation about the atrocities reported in Bucha," their report stated.

An Ever-Shifting Landscape of Falsehoods

The strategy of rapid false narratives means that attention to detail is not a priority for pro-Russian propaganda – which has also allowed it to change track multiple times in the last year.

While claims such as “Ukraine is a Nazi state" and “the United States and NATO are responsible for the war” gained traction in the initial months of the war, from October 2022 onward, claims around bioweapons and economic sanctions were more viral. At the same time, the themes around which the propaganda was spun did not widely vary from the major narratives identified by Logically early into the invasion. 

Among hundreds of claims surrounding the war, Logically debunked claims of Ukrainian soldiers wearing symbols associated with the far right and against NATO here, here and here. Narratives on U.S.-funded bioweapons being developed in Ukraine were debunked here and here

The Alliance for Securing Democracy's dashboard tracking the Russian government and state media's usage of certain keywords amid the war in articles and on social media has identified the following distinct narratives: Economic Retaliation, False Flag Operations/Bioweapons, Information War, Nazism/Extremism, Nuclear Threats, U.S./NATO to Blame.

“The major narratives differ from month to month. In the beginning, the most popular was about Nazism in Ukraine, with which Russia was trying to justify the invasion," Slipchenko told Logically. "Then, when Russian forces saw this narrative wasn't working, they switched their attention to 'War with the West,’ focusing on narratives that the West isn't interested in Ukraine and uses the country for its purpose. And that Ukraine is a failed state that can't be part of the European Union (EU)."

Logically's analysis found that the claim “Ukraine is a Nazi state” peaked around the invasion. The narratives “Ukraine is Satanic” and ”Ukraine is a terrorist state” had significant traction in February/March 2022 but also saw second peaks that corresponded with specific events in November 2022 and December 2022, respectively, amid Russia's attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure (which started in October). 

“To us it seems like the propaganda had stopped because it wasn’t working over the summer. But it was on pause, because since October, the number of cases of disinformation increased again,” Slipchenko said. “I suppose the start date was connected with the beginning of the attack on energy infrastructure. And then Russians started to repeat narratives justifying the war using the attack on the Crimea bridge.” 

The churn of claims that needed to be addressed didn’t stop there either. “Another popular narrative then in the EU was that sanctions do not harm Russia but harm European countries,” the fact-checker added. “Now, it's about discrediting Ukrainian authorities, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and our government.”

Has Russia's Propaganda Been Successful?

According to Slipchenko, Russian propaganda in general is not difficult to counter. Although the sheer volume makes it challenging at scale, individual claims are unsophisticated and lack a factual basis. Any attempts to alter images or videos are glaringly apparent. 

Military historian and fact checker Emil Kastehelmi agreed that Russian disinformation is "easy to tackle.” 

Despite this, pro-Russian narratives have achieved success across the world. “Of course pro-Russian narratives won't be popular in the EU or the U.S.," Kastehhelmi told Logically. “There's a long history there. The eastern and northern parts of Europe well remember what Russia is like as a state. But propaganda in India, China, and different parts of Africa will be more effective.” 

These countries don't associate Russia with negative experiences, which makes the war in Ukraine “a very distant thing” for them, he explained. 

“It's natural. India and Russia also work together in the defense sector, so it might be difficult to switch mindsets. In places like these, it’s easy to plant seeds of disinformation.

Logically found evidence of the success of pro-Russian narratives in India and China. The hashtag #IStandWithPutin, for instance, had over 230,000 mentions online, with India responsible for the highest number since February 24, 2022, according to Brandwatch data. 

Pro-Russian narratives were also successfully disseminated via coordinated inauthentic behavior from India-based accounts. Users with limited followers spread copypasta criticisms of Zelenskyy that included the same typographical errors, a March 2022 Logically investigation found. The New York Times reported how China provided a platform to its Russian counterparts and their claims without verification.

Russian propaganda has also been successful in the Middle East. False reports in Arabic about Zelenskyy fleeing, Russians protecting civilians in war zones, and narratives targeting the U.S. and EU gained popularity among locals, DW reported. “The overarching — and untrue — narrative is always that Russia is not responsible for the war in Ukraine.

Some of this messaging appears to originate from Russian state-funded media outlets working in Arabic, like Russia Today, more commonly known as RT," the German publication found.

But it’s not only these countries where Russia has achieved success with its narratives. Within the EU, the fears of collateral damage from the economic sanctions announced against Russia were stoked to generate hostility towards Ukraine and curtail anti-Russia sentiment.  

“Some Europeans thought the sanctions are inefficient and could impact their quality of life; it was really dangerous,” Slipchenko said. Recurring claims that the EU would suffer more from the sanctions and that the Russian economy was not really suffering had to be repeatedly addressed throughout the year, even though analysts found the measures only constrained certain sectors

Narratives against the West, including claims of arms being sold to terrorists, and the CIA colluding with the Ukrainian government, were widely spread by people and organizations associated with Hungary's ruling Fidesz party, Politico reported. They gained popularity despite Hungary publicly condemning the Russian invasion.  

Foreign Policy reported on how Italy had become a haven for Russian disinformation; Slipchenko suggested that historical factors and longstanding political issues like anti-refugee sentiment also played a part in the success of certain narratives in these countries.

Fault Lines – And a New Challenge

Within Ukraine, too, some of Russia’s narratives gained traction, including claims about war crimes and Ukrainian casualties. Allegations of war crimes by Ukrainian forces and misinformation around them – as well as unconfirmed allegations of war crimes by Russians from the Ukrainian side – posed some of the most difficult challenges for fact checkers.

This latter aspect – narratives which benefited Ukraine – has been one of the trickier questions to deal with in the past year, according to Kastehelmi. “If we don't look at propaganda in a negative way, we can see pro-Ukrainian propaganda as well. The country is in a situation where it is fighting an existential fight, so of course it has its own narratives it generates to the public," the Finland-based researcher said. 

Those who have followed the war over the last year will likely remember the early stories about the Ghost of Kyiv fighter pilot, which had to eventually be debunked by the Ukrainian armed forces. Or the stirring (but only partly true) story of the defenders of Snake Island whose defiance before allegedly being killed became a rallying cry in Ukraine and spread around the world. 

These narratives help keep western audiences engaged and enable political dialogue to keep western aid coming into the country, according to Kastehelmi. But this can sometimes prove a problem for Ukraine. 

An expert in analyzing satellite imagery, he notes that the Russian army has built extensive fortifications across hundreds of kilometres that could prove to bring "difficult times for Ukraine,” but the Western media tends to focus on small victories.

“Ukrainian narratives are closer to the truth but they do not talk about its losses that much. Only when the situation is critical and sympathies are needed are grave losses talked about,” he said. “The Western media has its own narratives; mainly, it says Ukraine is on the winning side, and the Russian army is extremely incompetent. That is also partially true; the Russian army has failed at multiple points. But the Western narratives don’t delve into the Ukrainians' deep struggles, in my opinion. I find the big picture concerning.”

Slipchenko's perspective of covering the victories and sharing good news differs. VoxUkraine actively chose to highlight successes of the Ukrainian armed forces, positive news about donations and help, and details of the destruction of Russian military equipment shortly after the invasion.

She and her team decided to not just write about those victories, but also launch a podcast – which she had to record from under the covers in the bedroom of her Kyiv apartment – because “we saw that people needed the good news in these horrible times.” 

This is not to say that she doesn't have emerging narratives within Ukraine  – but they are markedly different. Though VoxUkraine pivoted to debunking disinformation about the war over the last year, it will soon have to return to its original work before the war: fact-checking politicians' statements. In anticipation of an eventual presidential election once the war is over, Ukrainian political leaders in the opposition have already begun spreading misinformation. Statements usually target reforms the country’s introduced starting 2015.

“Now I see politicians are trying to manipulate the audience, because they understand elections will happen sooner or later after the war,” she said. “Politicians are catering to populism, and we will soon start having to look into that.”

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