In addition to a war with tanks and planes in Ukraine, there is also an information war raging. With Ukraine trying to get as much support as possible in the West and Russia wanting to fully control the available information at home and throttling access to the world wide web. Following Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Instagram has also been blocked there since today and TikTok is being restricted.
While those are precisely the places where a lot of information is circulated more than ever. The role of TikTok in particular stands out, the White House has even held a briefing for dozens of TikTok stars to provide them with factual information. But a large amount of information also means that fact and fiction are often difficult to distinguish.
In addition, videos do not have to be made consciously as a ‘propaganda tool’ to play a role in the information war.
Tractors and Tanks
Especially on the Ukrainian ‘side’ there are a lot of videos going around. Well-known are the images of, it is said, Ukrainian tractors towing Russian tanks. Platforms like TikTok and Twitter are full of it. This fits the image of David versus Goliath (Ukraine versus Russia).
There are many such videos circulating online. This was shared by someone who claims to be a journalist:
Another video that is widely circulated is the one in which, according to Ukraine, a Russian soldier is filmed in tears, who is given a cup of tea and allowed to call his mother. “The goal is to make sure that Ukrainians have the will to fight and at the same time they want to take away the will in Russians to fight,” said Peter Pijpers. He obtained his PhD from the University of Amsterdam on online influence operations.
“The message is that this person may not want to fight at all, but wants to be at home,” he says. “With the underlying question: do you really want to be involved in this conflict?”
This video circulated on Telegram earlier this month and has since been widely shared online. It is not possible to determine with certainty whether it is authentic†
The question is, of course, how spontaneous all those videos and images are. Russia expert Mariëlle Wijermars, affiliated with Maastricht University, assumes that many videos are recorded spontaneously. “Then such images are distributed strategically.” She sees the images from Ukraine as “strategic communication” and calls what comes from Russia “obvious propaganda”.
What is also striking is that a lot of memes are spread on the Ukrainian side, such as via the Twitter channel @uamemesforces:
While Ukraine has to rely on online media, Russia is very much focused on the interior, says Pijpers. “Russia uses state media a lot and Ukraine uses more sympathizers. At the moment, the latter strategy seems to work best.”
A kind of parallel reality has emerged. “The Russian government knows that there is relatively little information coming into Russia, they hope to be able to use the rest to their advantage,” says Han Bouwmeester, assistant professor of military strategy at the Dutch Defense Academy. He mentions the attack on the hospital in Mariupol at the end of last week as an example. “They attribute attacks that they have carried out themselves to Ukrainian terrorists.”
Russian troll factories – which in 2016 were still focused on the American elections – now seem mainly focused on Russia itself, says Gwenda Nielen. She is director of Tilt, a platform that combats disinformation. “That is the power base that now needs to be strengthened and politically stable.”
To the outside world, Russia mainly tries to sow doubt, says Pijpers. As an example, he mentions reports that the US would give money to labs in Ukraine where biological weapons are made. Not only Russian state media, but also social media and well-known conservatives have taken advantage of this. There are biological labs in the country, but they are specifically intended to prevent the production of such weapons, The New York Times writes in a fact check.
“That story is now completely exploited by the Russians,” says Pijpers. “It is framed, certain elements are left out. Which may make us doubt.” The aim, he says, is to reduce Western support for Ukraine.
Information war winner?
The question that remains: is there already a ‘winner’ to be identified in the information war? Pijpers still finds it difficult to say. “In any case, you can see that messages from the Ukrainian side are read more and arrive better. The Russians cause more irritation.”
“Ukraine is definitely winning in international opinion,” says Wijermans. “Before this, nobody knew about Zelensky. Now everyone is a fan of the Ukrainian president.” But she also points out that this is only one dimension of the war. “You don’t win with this. If the tanks roll in, you still lose.”