War through TikTok: a new Russian tool for the propaganda machine

In the Russian video TikTok has everything: a cat, puppies and a pulsating background rhythm. It is cute, visual and hardly seems to be material of state propaganda.

In 2014, Russia flooded the Internet with fake accounts promoting misinformation about the capture of Crimea. Eight years later, experts say Russia is making a much better effort if it invades Ukraine.

Armies of trolls and bots incite anti-Ukrainian sentiment. State-controlled media seek to divide Western audiences. TikTok’s clever videos serve Russian nationalism with a sense of humor.

These efforts are part of Russia’s military arsenal, which is formed through organized disinformation that fights alongside real troops and weapons.

In the video with cats, a husky puppy, identified by a digitally inserted US flag, stretches on the tail of a tabby marked with the Russian flag. The cat responds with a fierce blow that makes the unfortunate dog scurry. The clip, which has been viewed 775,000 times in two weeks, is the work of an account called Funrussianprezident, which has 310,000 subscribers. Almost all of his videos have pro-Russian content.

“It could be just a patriotic Russian fighting for a good fight as they see it, or it could be something directly related to the state,” said Nina Yankovich, a disinformation researcher and expert on Eastern Europe from the Wilson Center in Washington. “Russia is improving this tactic.”

Now they are putting them into the game.

Analysts from several different research organizations contacted by The Associated Press said they were seeing a sharp increase in online activity from groups linked to the Russian state. This is in line with Russia’s strategy of using social networks and state media to boost domestic support, while seeking to destabilize the Western alliance.

According to Cyabra, an Israeli technology company that detects misinformation, the number of suspicious accounts distributing anti-Ukrainian content on the Internet is rapidly increasing.

Cyabra analysts tracked thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts recently posted about Ukraine. Researchers saw a sudden and sharp rise in anti-Ukrainian content in the days just before the invasion. For example, on Valentine’s Day, the number of anti-Ukrainian messages created by selecting Twitter accounts jumped 11,000% compared to just a few days earlier. Analysts believe that a significant part of the accounts is invalid and controlled by groups affiliated with the Russian government.

“If you see growth of 11,000%, you know something is going on,” said Cyabra CEO Dan Brami. “No one can know who is doing it behind the scenes. We can only guess. “

The work has been going on for some time.

Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Laboratory analyzed 3,000 articles in 10 Russian state news and noted a large increase in unsubstantiated allegations that Ukraine was ready to strike at separatist groups. In general, according to the study, statements by Russian media about the Ukrainian aggression in January increased by 50%.

“So they go to war; this is a central part of the Russian doctrine, ”said Jim Ludes, a former U.S. defense analyst who now runs the Pella Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salva Regina University. Ludes said Russia’s disinformation campaigns were aimed at boosting support for Russia, while confusing and dividing the country’s opponents.

Russia is adapting its propaganda message to a specific audience.

For Russians and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, the message is that Russia is trying to protect its own people from aggression and persecution in Western-fueled Ukraine. A similar tactic was used, including by Nazi Germany, when it invaded Czechoslovakia under the guise of protecting the ethnic Germans living there, Ludes noted.

“It’s not the good guys who use this tactic,” Ludes said. “It’s a language of conquest, not a language of democracy.”

In the West, Russia seeks to sow division and reduce the chances of a united international response. This is partly done through stable state-controlled media outlets such as Sputnik and RT, which publish in English, Spanish and a number of other languages.

“The invasion has stopped,” read one headline on RT last week, a few days before Russian troops entered eastern Ukraine. “Tucker Carlson condemns Biden for focusing on Putin, Ukraine, and not on US domestic issues,” Sputnik News reported, citing a widespread Russian practice, citing U.S. government critics such as Fox News presenter Carlson. ) to suggest that America’s leaders are not out of touch.

Russia has also used cyberattacks during its invasion of Ukraine, and while they pose a serious threat, online propaganda could do even more damage if it succeeds, said retired Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, a former director of strategic operational planning at the National Center. the United States Counter-Terrorism Service.

“What’s much more dangerous is Russia’s ability to influence what people everywhere believe,” Nagata said. “To make them believe in things that are good for Russia’s strategic interests … If you can change what the whole population believes in, you may not have to attack anything.”

The European Union expressed concern to RT on Wednesday when it included RT’s editor-in-chief in a list of sanctions imposed on Russian officials. The EU called RT leader Margarita Simanyan “a central figure in government propaganda.”

On Saturday, Facebook announced it would ban RT from advertising on its website, and said it would expand the use of labels to identify state media.

Ludes said he was pleased to see the United States and its allies resolutely push back Russian disinformation and even try to prevent it by publicly revealing Russia’s plans.

“The Biden administration has shown some creativity in using intelligence to respond,” he said. “We haven’t seen this from the West since the Cold War.”

Associated Press writer Nathan Elgren of Washington contributed to this report.

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