Russia Launches Social Media Offensive Alongside Missiles

Telegram has been the main vector for invasion disinformation.

By , a journalist based in Toronto.
People stand outside a bombed building in eastern Ukraine.
People stand outside a bombed building in eastern Ukraine.
People stand outside a destroyed building after the bombing of the eastern Ukrainian town of Chuhuiv on Feb. 24. Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

As ballistic missiles launched from Russia, columns of tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border, and Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves to declare war on Thursday, a network of pro-Kremlin propaganda social media channels were at the ready to massage the war online on Putin’s terms.

On the secure messaging platform Telegram on early Thursday local time , a handful of channels such as “Donbass Insider” and “Bellum Acta” with a history of advancing pro-Russian propaganda sprang into action. Within minutes of explosions being reported in Donetsk, Odessa, and Kyiv, the channels supplied details, images, and video of the war in real time, in Russian, English, Spanish, and French. They showed Russian soldiers heading to war and the missiles landing just outside major Ukrainian cities.

On other Telegram channels that trade in far-right memes, images were shared of Putin brandishing a handgun and promising to “crush those filthy Ukrainian,” earning heart emoji from followers.

As ballistic missiles launched from Russia, columns of tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border, and Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves to declare war on Thursday, a network of pro-Kremlin propaganda social media channels were at the ready to massage the war online on Putin’s terms.

On the secure messaging platform Telegram on early Thursday local time , a handful of channels such as “Donbass Insider” and “Bellum Acta” with a history of advancing pro-Russian propaganda sprang into action. Within minutes of explosions being reported in Donetsk, Odessa, and Kyiv, the channels supplied details, images, and video of the war in real time, in Russian, English, Spanish, and French. They showed Russian soldiers heading to war and the missiles landing just outside major Ukrainian cities.

On other Telegram channels that trade in far-right memes, images were shared of Putin brandishing a handgun and promising to “crush those filthy Ukrainian,” earning heart emoji from followers.

Telegram may be a fairly marginal social media channel in the West, but—unlike Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube—it is one free of restrictions for state-backed propaganda campaigns in Russia, where it remains popular. The Russian state broadcaster RT, for example, has more than 200,000 followers on the platform.

The amount of disinformation emanating from Telegram was significant enough to warrant a statement from the Ukrainian government’s anti-disinformation body on Thursday, calling the work of such channels “information terrorism.” While few English-language channels were on the list of those the government flagged as dangerous, despite some of them having tens of thousands of followers, the statement nevertheless underscores Kyiv’s fear that Telegram offers a dedicated pipeline of pro-Russian propaganda.

It’s not clear whether these channels are sharing information at the direction of the Kremlin or are merely ideological compatriots of the Putin regime—but they have nevertheless proved adept at seeding information onto most popular social media platforms, with false claims leaping from Telegram onto Twitter, Instagram, and other sites.

Since the operation began, many of the channels have added a “Z” to their name—mirroring the letter emblazoned on the side of Russian military transport trucks rolling into Ukraine.

These channels had previously claimed to be using “open-source intelligence,” also known as OSINT. OSINT techniques have largely been used by outside investigators of the Russian state, such as perennial bugbear Bellingcat: This may be an attempt to discredit the idea of OSINT—or merely to manipulate it. These supposed OSINT channels frequently share content throughout their network—including across languages—and make little secret of their avid support for the Russian military operations.

While most of the content on these channels is a collection of publicly available statements, a curation of social media posts by Russian and Ukrainian citizens, and a repackaging of pro-Kremlin misinformation, the framing of these channels as “open-source intelligence” outlets gives them an air of legitimacy that Russian state media does not command. Members of the online far-right, who make up the bulk of Russian supporters, often trumpet the importance of “doing your own research,” and these channels give the illusion of doing just that.

As the invasion proceeded on Thursday morning, these channels claimed that critical Ukrainian cities had fallen to Russian soldiers—claims that later disappeared but that had already found credence online.

Minutes before the Ukrainian interior ministry even confirmed that ballistic missiles had been fired, the “Intel Slava” channel released images of the missiles being fired from inside Russia.

As day broke in Kyiv, the “Counter Intelligence Global” channel reported that Russian troops crossed the border across Belarus in the north and were moving to take Mariupol in southern Ukraine—“Mariupol is a Russian city again, say reports,” it broadcast.

This is the front line of the information war. Many analysts had speculated that Russia would destroy Ukrainian communications, but shock and awe seems to be the watchword. While communications were reported to be jammed in the Donbass region, which saw the heaviest fighting, communications remained intact in most of the country—allowing the deluge of images and video to show the full brunt of Russia’s aerial bombardment.

For days ahead of the invasion, these Telegram channels had been pumping out a stream of information—some from reputable sources, some speculative, some outright false. Several channels periodically reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled Ukraine, a claim that has remained untrue.

Even as the Russian offensive ramped up, these channels made outlandish and untrue claims. Shortly before 7 a.m. in Kyiv, one channel claimed there were “first preliminary reports that Odessa is captured.” Within an hour, the Ukrainian defense ministry confirmed there had been no landing in Odessa. Despite the reports being untrue, the claim quickly leapt onto Twitter.

These channels also boast of a line of sight into Putin’s strategy.

“Our source in the OP said that the Office of the President today expects the occupation of Kharkiv and Odessa,” the Intel Slava channel claimed, a message also spread on other pro-Kremlin channels and shared some 20,000 times over an hour. “The forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are stretched out and are not able to repel the attack of Russia.”

The claim, of course, runs counter to Putin’s stated promise not to occupy the country. True or not, it was just one claim among many—some coming from Russian ministries, some from official news agency TASS, some from these unofficial or semi-official social media channels—that were predominately geared towards weakening or confusing Ukrainian resolve.

As the airstrikes wore on, the Intel Slava channel claimed, “7th tactical aviation brigade of the Ukrainian Air Force no longer exists.” The claim was quickly repeated on Twitter, but not confirmed independently.

One of the strangest aspects of the pro-Russian Telegram information space is the involvement of an American, John Sullivan, who goes by the pen name “Jayden X.”

Sullivan was responsible for capturing footage of the death of Ashli Babbitt inside the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. In the days that followed, prosecutors filed charges against Sullivan for breaking into the Capitol. Sullivan had started a group called Insurgence USA before his arrest, and prosecutors allege he threatened officers and proclaimed, “We about to burn this shit down.”

Throughout the Russian invasion, Sullivan either posted or rebroadcast dozens of messages, pictures, and video from the offensive—almost all of it coming from pro-Russian sources. At one point, Sullivan posted a video appearing to show the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers, with text copy-pasted from another channel reading: “Eliminated as a result of a night clash. … Better lay down your weapons in a good way.”

Putin once brushed off the damning findings of the independent OSINT investigators at Bellingcat as “the legalization of the materials of American intelligence agencies.” But these channels are doing more than legalizing. They are actively laundering the Kremlin’s information operations—with very few voices on Telegram fighting back.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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