29.11.22 Propaganda Review

"Kremlin Trolls Never Sleep": Russian propaganda campaigns on European social media are not very effective but can cause problems in crisis situations

Throughout the current war, Moscow has regularly organized campaigns on European social media with the help of trolls and real-life media personalities who spread troll-driven narratives. Hungarian experts traced these campaigns in Hungary, Germany, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Some of them were timed to coincide with important political decisions (on arms supplies to Kyiv or the imposition of new sanctions and an oil embargo against Russia). Trolling narratives adapt to the country's sociopolitical landscape, and campaign organizers actively use stolen accounts that they buy on the black market. The authors of the study believe that these campaigns have not achieved much success in influencing public opinion and the level of support for Ukraine in Europe. However, in crises and amid worsening economic conditions, their effect can increase, so it makes sense for Europe to think about how to respond to this phenomenon.
After the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Hungarian Institute for Policy Research and Consulting (Political Capital) has conducted a series of studies on the narratives used by Kremlin trolls to influence the public opinion of EU citizens. The first study was conducted in the countries of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary) in the spring of 2022. The second was conducted in autumn in Germany and Italy — some of the largest EU member states, in Romania, which actively supports Ukraine, and in Hungary again, where the highest activity of Moscow trolls was detected in spring.

Trolls are identified based on "atypical online behavior" that is not typical of real users, such as posting the same comment multiple times. The researchers created keyword databases of comments for the period from February 15 to July 31 of this year (it included 1.2 million entries in Germany, 1.4 million in Hungary, 170,000 in Italy, and 690,000 in Romania), and then left only those comments in which a sequence of five identical words appears in at least 200 messages. Researchers were able to manually identify most of the profiles: it turned out that some of the accounts belonged to media figures popular among people with right-wing views, while others belonged to "ordinary citizens" whose data had either been stolen or bought on the black market.

According to the results of both studies, Hungary was the main focus of Kremlin Internet propaganda. The analysis has revealed four main pro-Russian narratives. The first says that Ukraine has no borders because it "did not approve them" at the UN and that Russia, as the successor of the USSR, has the right to control the disputed territories. Comments with such content appeared in Hungary on February 21, their number had peaked in the first week of the invasion, and by the end of March, they were completely gone. A detailed study of these posts has shown that the original text was most likely compiled through Google Translate and subsequently corrected by a native Hungarian speaker, and then spread from fake accounts. 

The second narrative, about "genocide" — "the Kyiv authorities are exterminating the eastern Ukraine population, especially in Donbas" — began to spread from a Facebook post published by the pro-Kremlin website Orosz Hírek on February 24th. On the same day, a similar text was posted 17 times in various groups and comments, and in the next few days, it rapidly gained popularity, which lasted until mid-March. Most of the profiles used to spread the "genocide" narrative are authentic and belong to media figures espousing the Russian view of the war as well as COVID-19 skepticism.

The third narrative claims that Ukraine is run by a theater troupe and that 80% of the Ukrainian government has United States citizenship. The first comments with such content began to appear after March 8th, when the spread of the first two narratives started to decline. Its popularity peaked on the 20th of March and was maintained up until the beginning of August. Finally, the fourth narrative is that NATO and the United States made repeated promises to Russia not to expand eastward, but deceived it. Now Europe is economically suffering from the sanctions imposed on Russia and is ultimately threatened with disintegration.

The authors of the study argue that Kremlin trolls have achieved some success in Hungary. Their narratives have a significant influence on society and are consonant with the anti-sanction rhetoric of the Hungarian authorities.

All four of the described narratives were also actively disseminated in Germany, with the latter being particularly popular there, as it overlapped with the growing German anti-NATO sentiment, primarily in the eastern part of the country. As it was established, the activation of trolls in Germany usually happens a few weeks before important decisions regarding arms supplies to Ukraine or the imposition of sanctions against Russia are made. For example, between April 18 and 28, when Germany was debating the supply of heavy weapons to Kyiv and the imposition of an embargo on Russian oil, the number of publications by Moscow trolls increased dramatically.

Two other propaganda narratives attempted to use the specifics of German public opinion. One was based on the popular discourse of the Covid skeptics and anti-vaccine activists, treating the pandemic as a fabrication of a "world government" led by the United States and NATO. Kremlin trolls have been spreading this topic on German social media, developing the narrative that Putin opposes the "world conspiracy" of this very government and therefore was forced to start a war in Ukraine. Another narrative actively used by Kremlin trolls was that the high inflation and rising heating costs were caused by sanctions against Russia: Germans suffer the consequences of restrictions more than Russians, so the sanctions must be lifted. These narratives were spread in Germany on the Facebook pages of the most popular TV programs, such as RTL, RTL Aktuell, Sat1, and ZDF Heute, as well as on the social media of well-known politicians. German newspapers, on the contrary, were not attacked by Kremlin trolls, except for Frankfurter Rundschau, which is known for its center-left stance and a strong focus on social issues.

Five narratives of Russian propaganda were identified on Italian social media. Most of them repeat the previous ones, based on the thesis of the "genocide in Donbas," increased gas and electricity prices, and anti-vaccine conspiracy. There is also one "local" narrative: the Kyiv regime is compared to the "Mario Draghi regime," whose economic policy has been heavily criticized. Apparently, this comparison should convince Italians critical of Draghi that the Ukrainian government is not worth supporting. In Italy, unlike in other countries, Kremlin trolls did not reproduce the same text but distributed its revised versions with similar content (this led to an abundance of semantic and grammatical errors in the comments). 

In Romania, local narratives absent in other countries were also found. The main emphasis here is on the fate of the ethnic Romanian minority living in western Ukraine, allegedly discriminated against by the Kyiv regime. The development of this narrative has been the claim that Ukraine prevents Romania from uniting with the original Romanian Bessarabia (which is the Republic of Moldova). The first posts on this subject were published by popular Romanian nationalists, but later they were virally spread by the Kremlin agents, accompanied by pictures with the maps of the "original Romanian territories" and "national losses". This narrative also criticizes Russia for its historically unfair treatment of Bucharest, but the propaganda claims that the harm it has caused Romania is not comparable to the damage done by Kyiv. Thanks to Moscow's criticism, this discourse is not perceived as pro-Russian by the local population. Romanian nationalists used this argument even before 2014, but it was not as widespread as in 2022 when the Kremlin trolls began to promote it.

A Political Capital study leads to the conclusion that Russia purposefully uses trolls in a hybrid war against Europe — they operate according to a well-established scheme and have a common strategy that takes into account the national characteristics of each country. This propaganda tool seems to be quite effective and does not require large expenditures: the maintenance of trolls is not expensive, and the data of stolen accounts are sold on the black market for next to nothing. However, it is hard to say that Kremlin trolls have achieved any significant results so far. Researchers believe that their successes are local and cannot affect the EU's general policy towards Kyiv and the sanctions regime against Russia. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the EU should not think about measures to counter propaganda on social media. In moments of crisis and a deteriorating economic situation, the influence of radical discourses may increase dramatically.