Ukraine is winning the information war in the West. What about elsewhere?
On March 2, a network of thousands of accounts from Africa and Asia came alive. Using a range of languages, they began rallying in support of Vladimir Putin.
Out of the 23 million tweets that posted the hashtag #IstandwithVladimir Putin, around 10,000 repeated the tweet five or more times. Before the invasion, these accounts had busied themselves tweeting about a range of political issues. Some pledged continual support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, others were in favor of Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan, still others backed former South African president Jacob Zuma or were concerned with Nigerian fuel shortages, or else trumpeted Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka.
But on the morning of the same day, they all began marching in unison. Thousands and thousands of times, they tweeted pro-Putin hashtags, along with memes and pictures in support of the Russian invasion. The hashtags began trending on Twitter, and was yet further boosted by Twitter’s algorithm.
“I was pretty astonished that Twitter was letting this trend,” said Carl Miller, a disinformation researcher at Demos, a London-based thinktank, who woke up on the morning of March 2 to find his Twitter feed blowing up with the hashtag. Using data from the site, he scrutinized the networks pushing the pro-Putin narrative, and found that many of the accounts appeared to be brand new, fake, hacked, or working in coordination with one another.
What’s going on?
In the enormous echo chamber that is Western social media, we have seen a wave of blue and yellow, an overwhelming level of support for the people of Ukraine. There is near unanimous agreement that Ukraine is winning, hands down, the information war against Russia.
“There’s loads of articles considering it such a truism — really now it’s just about explaining why — that ‘Putin’s left his propagandists flat footed’ or ‘Zelensky is such a genius media operator,’” said Miller. “I’m just never really sure these ideas are true. It’s very hard for us to say who’s winning or not.”
One thing is for certain: the West presently is not the main target of Russia’s information offensive. And in other parts of the world, the Russian narrative is being pushed and gaining traction.
In India, more than 500 Hindi-language, pro-Bharatiya Janata Party spam accounts switched from sharing millions of pro-Modi messages to sharing pro-invasion memes in English in early March. The accounts have since pivoted back to just promoting BJP content.
In South Africa, an anti-colonial set of voices usually tweets about former South African President Jacob Zuma, and pushes out content in solidarity with BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.) Miller said the South African group appears to be more organic than the Indian group — and yet, it jumped on the #IStandWithPutin hashtag.
What do the posts have in common?
Posts expand on how Russia has supported India, or focus on “whataboutism” -– looking at past offensives by the U.S. and NATO. Some of the posts are not necessarily “disinformation” in the strict definition of the term. But they are deceptive. For instance, a meme highlighting past western invasions — such as Iraq and Afghanistan — is designed to shift focus away from Russian aggression and violence in Ukraine. And when it’s amplified inauthentically, by thousands of fake accounts, then it begins to skew thinking, inflating the pro-Russian narrative in a way that’s misleading.
“There’s one meme I remember very vividly, which shows Russia as a kind of mighty mother bear. Ukraine is a kid with a stick that’s prodding this bear. And the U.K., U.S. and NATO are behind, prodding this kid. So the bear is having to come out of her cave to protect her cub. That’s probably not literally disinformation. To my eyes it’s a ridiculous misportrayal of the narrative around NATO. But I wouldn’t say there’s a truth claim there,” said Miller. “It’s not to say anyone’s spending too much time worrying about telling the truth. Whether you want to call it emotionally dis-informative is the reader’s call to make.”
Who is behind it?
That’s the tough question. At this stage, without a full investigation using open-source data into the roots of these accounts, we can’t definitively say who’s behind it just by looking at the accounts. But we can look at who benefits from this kind of information war.
Miller says: “if this isn’t Russia or someone being funded by Russia, I don’t understand what the interest, or the benefit would be. There’s nothing else really being gained here other than an attempt to try and garner pro-invasion support.”
How should we read this?
This digital swarm of support for Putin’s invasion shows the information war is shapeshifting every day, it’s important not to hold up this activity as a bellwether for real-life sentiment in these countries. They don’t reflect reality, and they don’t necessarily reflect public opinion, because they are being pushed and promoted in a way that’s deceptive.
“The world is a much bigger place than our own timelines,” said Miller. “There is a whole world out there for Russia to play for.”
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