Russia may be winning the Ukraine information war outside the West

It has become commonplace for commentators on Russia’s war in Ukraine to assert that Ukraine is winning the information war.

Indeed, Russia’s information operations seemed clumsy, and in some cases completely absent, in the early days of the invasion. In contrast, Ukraine, with much fewer resources, has seemed to dominate in all domains—broadcast, print and social.

After the horrific Russian atrocities against unarmed Ukrainian civilians revealed in Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere this week, it’s difficult to believe that Russia could win the information war anywhere.

However, Carl Miller, research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at UK think tank Demos, cautions that while this might be true for Western and English-language information spaces, it’s probably not true outside the West.

Miller says that the wall-to-wall pro-Ukraine sympathy that Western audiences are seeing on social media shouldn’t engender complacency.

‘In fact, it might be blinding us to where the information war is really happening. It could mean that the West is not the battleground over which the information war is currently being fought.’

This view is supported by a report this week from Meta detailing a surge in disinformation across its platforms in which Russia and its allies are playing major roles.

Miller and his team have been pulling apart a Twitter influence operation that began on 2 March, focused on two pro-invasion hashtags, #IStandWithPutin and #IStandWithRussia.

Researchers looking at the activity on these hashtags saw obvious and suspicious patterns, says Miller, indicating a probable information operation.

The key features included accounts that did nothing but fire off retweets, accounts from different linguistic and national arenas that suddenly started posting the hashtags on the same day, and sharp spikes in the creation of these accounts on the day of the invasion as well as on the day of the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s actions.

But, says Miller, in the world of open-source intelligence it’s very difficult to find hard evidence to link campaigns back to state actors, in this case Russia.

Miller’s team wanted to find out more about this campaign by building a picture of the linguistic profile of accounts used.

The first thing they found was that very few of these accounts claimed to be from the West. Most used Hindi, Farsi, Urdu, Sindhi and other languages and identified themselves as coming from India, South Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia.

And their messages did not address the West at all. The narratives they amplified were all about Western hypocrisy and NATO expansionism.

‘They were talking about anti-colonial solidarity, they were talking about BRICS solidarity, they were talking about Putin’s role in national liberation movements in Africa in the 1980s,’ explains Miller.

A lot of these narratives were amplified by a small number of memes receiving huge numbers of retweets and ‘likes’ from the suspect accounts.

Miller says that these memes can be divided into two categories.

‘You’ve got memes which are explicitly addressing India and BRICS countries, especially South Africa. Lots of Indian and Russian flags crossed, and ones invoking Russia’s diplomatic support for India over the years, as well as what Ukraine has done to undermine Indian aims over the years.

‘But tied in with that there are pure internet memetics. Putin riding a bear and India as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, standing up to a charging horde of Western diplomatic pressure.’

He notes, however, that it’s important to recognise that a lot of this messaging doesn’t really belong in the category of disinformation.

‘There isn’t a tremendous number of truth claims really being contained in these memes. There is no actual truth or lie in Putin riding around on a bear.

‘So this is often actually not really about fact or falsehood at all. It’s acting in the world of feeling and slick TikTok rock music videos, and making Russia look cool and powerful. It is much more to do with identity and belonging and sense of place in the world, I think, than overt fake news or propagating a lie.’

While it’s difficult pin these campaigns on states without sustained investigative journalism, Miller says many of them use paid-to-engage services, which offer to create amplification accounts that up retweets, followers and replies. The aim is to create an illusion of high engagement that might then tip over into authentic engagement.

‘You’re one Google away from these services. For instance, in the three Indian tweet clusters which we found, pretty much every single account is currently talking about Kashmir Files, a very divisive Indian-language film that’s been released. So, my guess is that they’re commercial.’

The fact that businesses have sprung up expressly to service both commercial and state-based information operations is an often overlooked aspect of information warfare.

‘It probably has much more to do with the grubby, benign day-to-day world of spam than it does grand geopolitics and the great game,’ says Miller.

But the geopolitical effects can be very real. Miller notes that the #IStandWithPutin campaign is attempting to ‘couch what I see as an essentially an imperial invasion in anti-colonial terms’.

If the Indian government sees an upswing in pro-invasion Twitter sentiment, that might influence it to take action to help Russia circumvent sanctions and damage India–US relations—both desirable objectives for Moscow.

According to Miller, the information space across BRICS and Southeast Asia is much more contested than Western decision-makers might be aware of.

‘I’ve had lots of journalists reach out to me from Malaysia, India and Singapore and Indonesia. They are seeing much more joined conflict on Ukraine in their information spaces than what we are seeing in the West.’

So how best can Ukraine-supportive governments counter these campaigns? First, they shouldn’t just copy these tactics, argues Miller, because all that would do is help strip information of authenticity or true meaning, ‘hastening the militarisation of things that shouldn’t be militarised’.

‘The responses have to be asymmetric. We have to look beyond the platforms. Facebook and Twitter removing accounts isn’t enough. We have to put more direct pressure on the servers that are being used to attack these platforms,’ says Miller.

‘And ultimately, I think we’ve got to clean up the world of spam. Because it’s not okay that there are these companies out there selling retweets to anyone, because who’s going to pay for them are information warfare officers. It’s not okay that this stuff is legal and it’s not okay that it’s functioning freely in the open market.’