04.11.22 Propaganda Review

Twitter Weapons: the war of narratives around the confrontation between Russia and the West is taking over the world and has been moderately successful so far

The war in Ukraine is also actively being waged on social media, with mixed success so far, and the twists and turns in its course are shedding light on the background of some political events, the grain deal in particular. For example, a Brookings Institution study demonstrates the huge resonance that the issue of food security has in Africa, where the vast majority of users accuse Russia of creating food problems, and the narrative that Western sanctions cause them is not very popular. At the same time, the pro-Kremlin theme of Ukrainian Nazism/Fascism has also gained immense popularity, thanks to three specific viral videos. Finally, according to a study by the Center for European Policy Analysis, Russia has ultimately won the Twitter battle about undermining the Nord Stream pipeline: 63% of all tweets about it blamed Western countries, and only 10% accused Russia.

The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) has published a study on the international public opinion formation about the Nord Stream pipeline undermining. The authors analyzed 500 thousand of tweets about the attack written between September 24 and October 2. In 63% of cases, the U.S. was blamed for the explosions, 27% of tweets were neutral and contained calls to wait for the accident investigation results, and only 10% of tweets accused Russia. The authors analyze how this overall picture, so unfavorable to the West, was created. First, they write the trend of disinformation from the American information field is quickly spreading to Europe and vice versa. Scottish historian Craig Murray's post claiming that Poland, Ukraine, and the United States were blaming Russia for the pipeline explosion, even though these countries were the most vocal opponents of its construction, got the most hits and retweets in the United States. Numerous other tweets blamed Poland and Norway for the attack, pointing out that a new pipeline between these two countries was opened the day after the attack.

European far-right politicians who exploit the general political tension in Europe play an essential role in the escalation of disinformation. For example, French nationalist Florian Philippaud has tweeted eight times about U.S. responsibility for the attack on Nord Stream, urging France to leave NATO. Gunnar Lindemann, a far-right Alternative for Germany member, also expressed the opinion that the Poles were involved in the sabotage. In the United States, journalists, conservative experts, and Republican Party officials have begun to speculate that Washington has orchestrated sabotage to manipulate European politicians. Finally, researchers note that while not all social media disinformation campaigns originate from Kremlin-affiliated sources, the Kremlin nevertheless often contributes to their further spread. For example, the Russian Foreign Ministry waited until the fake about America's involvement in the Nord Stream accident spread widely on social media and then posted a video with Biden saying that "there will be no Nord Stream 2 if Russia invades [Ukraine]" on its English and Spanish profiles. Some Chinese dignitaries gave similar support to this trend.

The researchers note that conspiracy theories and misinformation about the war in Ukraine are spreading on Twitter and other social networks. Another mechanism for forming anti-Western narratives is fake accounts identified in them. For example, 1,600 pro-Kremlin Facebook accounts targeting German, Italian, and French audiences were detected by the end of September.

This question is becoming increasingly acute in the context of the West's growing economic difficulties, on the one hand, and the struggle for developing countries and countries with emerging markets waged by Russia and the West, on the other. A decisive battle of narratives is also unfolding here, and its twists and turns are shedding light on some critical political subjects, such as the fate of the grain deal.

Another study (this time by the American Brookings Institution) analyzing reactions to the war in Ukraine in Africa makes it clear. Here, 3.5 million tweets posted between February 14 and August 14 were taken as the basis. Most of them (190 thousand) were about Ukrainian ports' blockade. Most often, Russia was blamed for the food crisis, and only 10% of the tweets accused Europe's sanctions policy. 

Another subject of discussion on African Twitter was Nazism in Ukraine. In total, 72,000 tweets appeared on this topic, with 77% claiming Russia is fighting fascism/nazism in Ukraine. There were three outbursts of these tweets tied to relevant, newsworthy occasions. The first came on March 12, when a video of an African student in Ukraine being interrogated at a police station spread online. The second one was on May 17, when the United States announced the deployment of its troops in Somalia. Users compared this move to Russia's troop buildup near Ukraine's border in late 2021 or early 2022 and accused the U.S. of supporting Ukrainian neo-Nazis. Finally, the last wave of tweets came between July 16 and 24, when videos of "neo-Nazis" attacking Ukrainian businesses in 2017 appeared online. 

The report's authors divided all processed tweets into two groups: neo-Nazi accusation tweets and proof tweets refuting common fakes. During the monitoring period, there were significantly more accusation tweets than proof tweets. The number of proof tweets exceeded the number of accusation tweets only on July 31, two days after the mass murder of prisoners of war in Olenivka. Many of the proof tweets were about the Wagner PMCs and groups promoting racist ideas involvement in the crime. Most often, users spreading the news about "Ukrainian Nazis" identify themselves as socialists, and a unique Bot Sentiment program describes their accounts as "subversive" and "involved in malicious activity" (such activity usually includes spreading fakes and harassing other accounts).

The authors of both studies note that Twitter has already taken steps to stop the spread of fakes. For example, the social media has recently stopped promoting accounts affiliated with Russian state media and all tweets that link to pro-Kremlin sources. However, this only sometimes helps to limit the spread of disinformation.