Social media disinformation warfare: is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the first “social media war”?

April 2022
 by Yana Milcheva

Social media disinformation warfare: is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the first “social media war”?

April 2022
 By Yana Milcheva

In the early hours of 24 February, news reports flooded the internet announcing the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, referred to by Russia’s President Putin as a “special operation”. Since then, the online space has become an extension of the battlefield, providing a platform for acts of kindness and support for the Ukrainian people, but also for the ruthless spread of disinformation and false narrative in aid of the invasion. Here is an overview of how the invasion has been covered on some of the most popular social media platforms.

TikTok

Despite amassing millions of users and surpassing Google as the most-visited website in 2021, TikTok remains a widely unregulated platform when it comes to disinformation, fake news and propaganda dissemination. The video production and distribution features of the app, in combination with its growing community, have led to a swathe of Ukraine-related content, both real and fake, appearing on the platform in recent weeks. This has prompted media outlets to define the war in Ukraine as the “TikTok war” and the “first social media war”.

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, the number of TikTok livestreams, allegedly from Ukraine, has increased exponentially. Most of the livestreams have depicted Ukrainian cities being bombed or night scenes with air raid sirens sounding. According to disinformation experts, many of the streams are fake, with their authors using historic footage on loop to create the impression of a real-time livestream. The accounts behind the fake live coverage are considered inauthentic: most of these users joined TikTok only a week or so before the invasion, and some of the accounts contain no posts before the livestreams – a further indication of coordinated, inauthentic behaviour. 

Aside from fake videos and outdated imagery, several reports state that the Russian Federation has mobilised TikTok influencers to defend the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Numerous Russian TikTok influencers have posted videos reciting the exact same script, saying Russia wants to “stop the eight-year genocide in the Donbas and return the peaceful sky over their heads to children”. The propaganda, amplified by young influencers in this way, is aimed at convincing younger online users of Russia’s fabricated narrative about the war.

fake russian tiktok influencer livestreams

In light of this activity, and after a new law was passed by Russia’s parliament on 4 March 2022 imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military and the conflict with Ukraine, TikTok has made the decision to suspend all new content, including livestreams, from Russia.

Twitter

With its huge capabilities for the amplification of fabricated narratives, Twitter remains one of the most-used platforms for the spread of disinformation. The beginning of the Russian invasion saw the appearance on Twitter of inauthentic or repurposed imagery and video footage aimed at convincing users that they were witnessing the current situation in Ukraine.

Fact-checkers such as Esther Chan have posted about Twitter threats, flagging unverified video footage used to contextualise the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Images of fighter jets used to report on the early stages of the Russian invasion, for example, were found to originate from 2020. Other images claiming to be from Ukraine have been repurposed from video games and historic military drills dating from as far back as 2018. According to a report published almost a month into the war in Ukraine, Twitter failed to stop Russian propaganda from circulating within the first weeks of the war, neglecting to flag state-run accounts and therefore allowing them to share divisive and inaccurate content.

Disinformation about the war has not been limited to hostile narratives. In some cases, inaccurate narratives have been distributed to boost morale online, such as the story of the “Ghost of Kyiv”, a flying ace credited with having shot down six Russian fighter jets in a single day of the war. Since its publication the story has been deemed fictional, with claims that the footage was taken from a video game, while aviation experts have noted that it is highly unlikely a pilot could have shot down six planes in a day.

out of context video game flying ace tweet

The war has also been used as a vehicle to amplify anti-establishment narratives and undermine trust in Western governments. Social media influencers such as the French rap artist Booba have moved away from disseminating anti-vaccine claims, and taken instead to distributing pro-Russia narratives. The shift in narrative may indicate that certain individuals with large social media followings tend to lend their voice to the most divisive and controversial topic of the day, resultingly sowing discord and gaining the attention of the constantly expanding conspiracy sphere.

False narratives surrounding the war have also been prominent across Ukraine’s neighbouring countries. Propaganda alleging the Ukrainian government is corrupt, neo-Nazi and homophobic has spread rapidly across the Czech Republic, with disinformation expert Frantisek Vrabel noting that anti-Ukrainian and anti-NATO narratives have quickly displaced COVID-19 as the main topic of disinformation. Telegram’s large user base in Eastern Europe has contributed to the amplification of polarising narratives, with both President Putin and President Zelenskyy utilising its capabilities.

Russian-owned VKontakte has become the heart of the digital war in Ukraine, providing an online combat zone where both sides of the conflict distribute their own version of events. The overwhelming volume of disinformation across the Russian-owned platforms has sparked concern about the legitimacy of the information being consumed by Russian citizens, particularly as Russia has banned mainstream global platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Reddit

In the weeks following the invasion, we have identified many Russian bots posting the letter Z across Reddit. The letter Z was first spotted on Russian tanks in February 2022 and has become a symbol of support for the Russian military, as well as being appropriated by far-right groups and pro-Russian protesters. Reddit threads dedicated to the war provide examples of the dissemination of the symbol Z by pro-Russian bot accounts. The bots have used various identifiers, including “Average Luhansk Enjoyer”, “Anti-anglo aktion”, “Certified Donetsk Enjoyer”, and “China state-affiliated media”. Most of these bots have been created since the beginning of 2022, an indication of an uptake in activity as a response to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

russian reddit bots spam screenshot

The examples above reveal only a small sample of Russia’s attempts to use social media to spread inauthentic narratives and sow confusion online. While the outcome of the war is as yet uncertain, what we can be sure of is that social media will remain a crucial source of both information and disinformation throughout the invasion.

Join our newsletter and get access to all the latest information and news:

© Digitalis Ltd. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy.