The historical sophistication of Russian influence operations is well known. But today, in Ukraine, Russia is struggling to keep up with the modern information war raging over social and traditional media. From official accounts of the conflict to extravagant narratives like the stories of the “Ghost of Kyiv” and the “Ukrainian Reaper,” two (likely mythical) Ukrainian warfighters said to be racking up unbelievable numbers of Russian casualties, Ukraine and its partisans are running circles around Putin and his propagandists in the battle for hearts and minds, both in Ukraine and abroad.
It wasn’t always like this. In 2008, by contrast, Russia propagated an efficient and effective information war in step with its invasion of Georgia, sending journalists alongside troops to propagandize what they claimed was a Georgian genocide of native Russians. (A Washington Post editorial at the time accused Russia of “mythmaking,” and an RT News reporter resigned, claiming that “the real news, the real facts of the matter, didn’t conform to what they were trying to report.”) In 2014, Putin engaged in a more sophisticated two-pronged information war in Crimea, using Facebook and Twitter to orchestrate the flow of information online. The first prong suppressed pro-Ukrainian voices by overwhelming their social media posts with hundreds of automated fraud and abuse reports, claiming that the posts contained porn or hate speech. In response, Facebook took down the “offending” messages and banned their authors, effectively banishing pro-Ukrainian voices from the platform. The second prong created and disseminated misinformation through false tweets, blog posts and news stories, propagating absurd tropes describing Ukrainians as “Nazis” who were oppressing Jews and native Russian speakers.
When I studied Russia’s information war on Twitter, in an article published with my colleagues Deb Roy and Soroush Vosoughi in Science, and in my book “The Hype Machine,” I found their misinformation campaign in Crimea accounted for the lion’s share of the largest spike in partially true, partially false news stories in the platform’s history. These partially true, partially false stories exceeded every other spike in verified “mixed” news on Twitter from 2006 and 2017 by a factor of four. The amount of bot activity and the number of unique accounts spreading misinformation were also significantly higher for the Crimean mixed-news stories than for all the other verified mixed political news ever recorded on Twitter.
Today, the information war in Ukraine is more intense, more tightly contested and arguably more important than ever because motivating volunteer fighters at home and encouraging foreign support abroad are critical to success. And this time, it seems, Russia is losing. Reports abound on social media of more than 4,000 Russian casualties, images of crippled Russian helicopters and armored vehicles and cellphone videos of savage Russian missile attacks on civilian targets. This mix of official Ukrainian war statistics combined with videos (both verified and unverified), posted by Ukrainian citizens and sympathizers from the front lines, is painting a vivid picture of a homegrown resistance successfully slowing the advance of a much larger and ostensibly better organized military machine. Facebook posts showing Ukrainians kneeling in front of tanks to stop their progress and Twitter images of women and children sheltering in subways and basements set the emotional backdrop of senseless aggression against a peaceful nation. Viral videos and audio clips evoke a defiant optimism impossible to ignore: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appearing via his cellphone walking the streets of Kyiv, unharmed, in a “proof of life” demonstration emphasizing his willingness to stay and fight for his country, despite a U.S. offer to evacuate him, for example, or the recording of soldiers in an isolated Ukrainian outpost on Snake Island, in the Black Sea, cursing and telling off the Russian Black Sea Fleet. These stories are spreading rapidly on social media and subsequently echoing through official news channels in a media feedback loop that amplifies the information war and broadcasts it on television sets all over the world.
Zelensky, in particular, is deftly outmaneuvering Putin in this information war. He rallied Ukrainian men to defend their homeland, used the encrypted messaging platform Telegram to speak directly to the Russian people to counter Putin’s narrative, urged the West to step up its assistance in defense of law, order and peace, and even pleaded with foreigners to cross the border into Ukraine to defend Western democracy. While misinformation exists on both sides, Zelensky gives the impression that he’s more committed to truth and transparency. In contrast, Russia has been secretive, obfuscating the true extent of its incursion into Ukraine, and out of touch, airing the rambling addresses of its leader. It’s as if Putin has forgotten that social media transitioned from text to real-time video around the time of the Crimean annexation. In today’s information war, Russian news claiming Zelensky had turned tail and fled was swiftly countered by a video selfie of the Ukrainian president in Kyiv, vowing to defend his homeland. The symbolic contrast between Zelensky striding through war-torn streets, confident even under fire, and Putin, seated, hunched over a large wooden desk in the safety of a secure office hundreds of miles away from the fighting, is stark.
This time, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google are also proactively engaged in the information war. During the Crimean annexation, they were reactive and struggled to keep up with misinformation and false abuse reports. Today, in Ukraine, they have banned Russian state-owned media from advertising on their platforms and defiantly fact-checked Putin’s propaganda despite Russia’s protests and a full ban of Twitter and a partial ban of Facebook in Russia. Facebook has spun up a special operations center, staffed with native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, to monitor misinformation posted about the war, added warning labels to war-related images that its software detects are more than a year old, and restricted access to content from the state-affiliated Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. YouTube is restricting access to Russian state-owned media outlets for users in Ukraine, removing Russian state-owned channels from recommendations, and limiting their content’s reach across the platform. Twitter has temporarily banned all ads in Ukraine and Russia, added labels to tweets with links to Russian state-affiliated media and downranked their content in algorithmic timelines. While numerous fake videos are circulating on TikTok about Ukraine, the Chinese-owned platform has no comprehensive policy on policing information about the conflict. Despite blocking state-owned Russian media in the European Union, this information flows freely in Ukraine and Russia on the platform, now dubbed “WarTok” by some observers, in part because it is organizing such videos into a convenient discover playlist by the same name.
The information war is critical to what happens next in Ukraine for several reasons. It motivates the resistance by inspiring Ukrainian citizens to take up arms in defense of their country and motivating them with social proof that they are united and not fighting alone. It encourages foreign assistance, pressuring Europe and the United States to step up their efforts to end the conflict. It fans the flames of protest in Russia, mobilizing the antiwar movement in Moscow and elsewhere in defiance of Putin’s aggression. And it may even eventually demoralize Russian troops, who must be wondering what on earth they are doing in Ukraine if the motivation for the intervention has been a lie all along. When Russia struck a Ukrainian television tower on Tuesday, it seemed to confirm Moscow’s keen awareness of the need to counter Ukraine’s information war and to highlight the importance of information in modern conflicts.
Information campaigns are difficult to quantify during the fog of war. But while it is hard to pinpoint the extent to which the information war is contributing to the overwhelming international unity against Putin’s aggression, one thing is clear: Social media, mainstream media and the narrative framing of the invasion of Ukraine undoubtedly will play an important role in how this conflict ends. Now, vigilance and fortitude are not only needed on the battlefield, where lives and territory will be won and lost, but also will be essential online, where the hearts and minds of the world will be won or lost.