“We call on everyone who supports the actions of our President and the Russian military to join in the creation and distribution of truthful content!”
This call to arms by a Russian website appears to be successfully recruiting ordinary Russians – 28,000 of them according to Sky News research – to take part in the information war.
This is just one example of how part of the Russian public is playing its part in the battle to control the narrative around the Ukrainian conflict. Other examples include recruiting a “cyber army” of hackers and creating a seemingly grassroots organization to track Ukrainian war crimes.
Deep down, they all have a common goal – to justify Russia’s actions and counter Western allegations of Russian atrocities.
“Standing for the Truth”
The aforementioned website called Zanami Pravda – which translates to “standing up for the truth” – asks people to upload pro-Russian content to share online in order to “contribute to the victory of Russia”.
According to the website’s figures, the 28,000 people who uploaded content contributed more than 100,000 images and videos to the site, numbers that have increased rapidly over the past week.
Those who share “the best patriotic content” on the site enter contests to win music and TV subscription services. The most recent winners were announced at an office of the All-Russia Popular Front, a political coalition led by Vladimir Putin.
The uploaded content includes shareable videos and images of so-called “antifakes” that claim to debunk Western media narratives. This includes claims that the Bucha massacre, where the bodies of civilians were found on the street after Russian forces occupied the townwas organized by Ukrainian forces.
War Crimes Tracker
Another seemingly grassroots effort in this communications battle has emerged under the banner of the “Tribunal” project, the name of which evokes a reference to the Nuremberg trials, where top Nazis were brought to justice after World War II.
The group has documented at least one potential war crime in Ukraine – a case where a Ukrainian soldier appeared to shoot a Russian prisoner of war. They also uncovered the names of three Ukrainian soldiers suspected of involvement in the incident and published their contact details online.
Yet justice, in regards to this project, seems to focus only on Ukrainian forces, which they largely accuse of criminal acts with little evidence.
The project has produced a set of “most wanted” foil cards – much like the US Department of Defense did during the 2003 invasion of Iraq – to highlight Ukrainian figures they held responsible for war crimes.
The image below shows President Volodymry Zelenskyy and former President Petro Poroshenko as two of the aces in the pack.
The links promoted online by the Tribunal Project also show other ways to encourage people to support the Russian effort. One points people to a group of hackers looking to recruit people for a Russian “cyber army.”
The cybergroup is not just looking to recruit hackers, but also graphic designers and search engine optimization specialists to help spread their material.
Why are they doing this?
The dissemination of information that challenges Western reporting serves to create doubt in the minds of readers and viewers as to what to believe.
But it is not only the content of the information shared, but also the methods of reporting, which are changing in this war.
The use of open source information in forensic investigations – using satellite imagery, geolocation and close-up video analysis to reveal what happened – has become important in war coverage.
But a popular pro-Russian channel Telegram, a social media site, is now using these techniques to make statements that include questioning the Bucha massacre.
Although the claims on this channel resemble the style of a forensic investigation, they are often unsupported by evidence.
The image below is an example where posts on the channel claim cyclist filmed by drone being killed by Russian forces worked for the Ukrainian forces.
CNN has confirmed that the person killed was Iryna Filkina, who was cycling home from a mall after attempting to evacuate the city that day.
Professor Charlie Beckett, director of the LSE’s media think tank Polis, believes the dissemination of this material is a deliberate ploy to undermine trust in reporting: “We have tended to assume that our investigations and the he use of forensic methods is meant to expose things that people want to cover up.
“We thought these tools around the internet would help democratization, but authoritarian actors have also used them. It’s frankly a trolling of Western journalists.”
This tactic is not limited to a small corner of the Internet. In an interview with Sky News last week, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, cast doubt on the satellite images used to assess that Russia was responsible for the Bucha murders, much the same as pro-Russian telegram channels .
Who wins the information war?
Understanding whether these efforts are succeeding in convincing the public can be difficult, but new research appears to show significant public support in Russia for the war.
Dr Philipp Chapkovski and Professor Max Schaub have used a new survey design to gauge how many people in Russia are giving honest opinions about the war. It is believed that some may fear retaliation from the state if they disapprove of the military action.
They found that about 15% of people were unwilling to reveal their dissatisfaction with the war when asked directly. Yet despite this, the poll still showed that a majority of people in Russia – 53% – supported the invasion.
Professor Beckett believes that this focus on the domestic market is ultimately the real goal of Russia’s information warfare:
“The Russians aren’t looking to convert British voters into Putinists…Making a few clever remarks online will probably only serve their audience. It won’t convince anyone else.”
the Data and forensics The team is a versatile unit dedicated to delivering transparent Sky News journalism. We collect, analyze and visualize data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite imagery, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling, we aim to better explain the world while showing how our journalism is done.
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