King of lies

| March 10, 2024

Russian propaganda and disinformation continue to pose a global risk. Ukrainian territories that Russia unlawfully occupies have served as a testing ground for the Kremlin’s information operations and provide us with a glimpse into its present and future propaganda tactics.

Disinformation is the number one short-term risk facing the world in 2024, according to the Global Risks Report. Russia’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns have accelerated with its 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These campaigns help the Russian government to maintain control over the domestic information space and sow division in Ukraine and among Ukraine’s international allies.

Academics, governments, journalistic and civil society initiatives, and some social media platforms across the world have dedicated efforts to monitor, report, debunk, or take down Russian disinformation and propaganda targeting various audiences. However, tactics aimed at controlling the information environment in the Ukrainian territories Russia illegally occupies remain overlooked. And yet, these tactics can teach us a lot about how Russian propaganda functions, as it is the occupied Ukrainian territories where Russia perfected its information campaigns.

Control over the information space is the first step in Russia’s playbook for ensuring the success of its propaganda. In 2014, Russian military and Russian-backed forces swiftly took control over broadcasting infrastructure in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions, repeating the same tactic in 2022 when occupying Kherson. Prison sentences of ten to fifteen years as punishment for people for making social media posts expressing dissent towards Russia have been a common practice for courts in the regions under Russian control during the first stage of the Russia-Ukraine war. After the 2022 full-scale invasion, the same sentences have been given to Russian citizens critical of the Vladimir Putin regime on social media domestically.

In the propaganda and disinformation campaigns on the occupied Ukrainian territories, no information channels have been deemed too small or unimportant. The occupying forces mobilised all resources available: from small local television stations and newspapers to micro-influencers on Facebook (prior to the platform’s shutdown in Russia and territories it controls). According to an investigation by Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communication, these information channels would often cross-post each other’s stories, amplifying the impact of propagandist narratives.

The same cross-posting tactic has been an important part of a recent Russian disinformation campaign. Russian disinformation agents targeted foreign fact checkers as first identified by Bot Blocker / antibot4navalny Project, an anonymous group tracking Russian-language influence operations. Coined as Matryoshka (Russian for “nesting dolls”), the campaign involved likely human-operated Twitter/X accounts quote-tweeting each other’s posts containing links to false claims and flooding small teams of independent fact checkers with requests to verify these claims.

Not all Russian propaganda narratives involve spreading disinformation, like in the case of Matryoshka accounts. Sometimes, distracting from inconvenient developments on the battlefront may be just as effective. Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communication analysed the news broadcast on a random day in October 2023 by Mariupol’s local TV channel and discovered that it was flooded with “positive” news such as construction projects or Putin’s wishes to school teachers. Such “positive” news not only creates an impression of order and control in the occupied regions, but also denies the reality of the war, with local broadcasts and online information channels prohibited from reporting on the events on the battlefield.

Domestically, the Russian “troll farm,” Internet Research Agency (now allegedly disbanded), was discovered to have commissioned content to be posted by non-political influencers, including popular meme and horoscope Twitter accounts and Telegram channels. This diversification and adaptation allows propaganda narratives to reach new audiences without the risk of exposing Russian military failures, with war news contained within dedicated channels such as those of Z-bloggers.

While Ukrainian territories under Russian occupation tend to be overlooked by scholars, journalists, and activists monitoring Russian propaganda and disinformation, they are one of the most important battlefields for Russia’s information warfare. Some, like Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions have long served as a testing ground for tactics Russia has now been deploying both domestically and globally. As we enter the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion, actors trying to counter Russian propaganda need to pay attention to three developments from the occupied Ukrainian territories.

The first is that Russia’s information campaigns have started experimenting with artificial intelligence. In the occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia oblast, AI-powered tools have been deployed to quickly identify dissenting voices in the lead up to the presidential elections in Russia. There are also early indications of AI-generated content targeting English-speaking audiences, albeit not yet achieving a substantial reach. The research community interested in countering Russian information operations must continue monitoring the incorporation of AI in how information flows are controlled during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Second, in early 2024, it was reported that Russian occupying forces had planned to introduce passport verification as a precondition for residents to access the internet. This development constitutes a new step in the broader forced passportisation campaign which has denied access to basic life necessities to residents of the occupied territories who refused to accept Russian citizenship. These measures may soon be implemented in Russia proper.

Lastly, the most important tactic of Russian information campaigns in the occupied territories is the silencing and denial of the immediate experiences of the war. If Russia’s disinformation can make those living close to the frontlines forget about the war, we can only imagine how malleable are those thousands of kilometres away from it. On an individual level, continuing to pay attention to Russia’s invasion is one of the most effective ways to counter its propaganda.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.