In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and throughout the ongoing conflict, social media has served as a battleground for states and non-state actors to spread competing narratives about the war and portray the ongoing conflict in their own terms. As the war drags on, these digital ecosystems have become inundated with disinformation. Strategic propaganda campaigns, including those peddling disinformation, are by no means new during warfare, but the shift toward social media as the primary distribution channel is transforming how information warfare is waged, as well as who can participate in ongoing conversations to shape emerging narratives.
Examining the underlying dynamics of how information and disinformation are impacting the war in Ukraine is crucial to making sense of, and working toward, solutions to the current conflict. To that end, this FP Analytics brief uncovers three critical components:
- How social media platforms are being leveraged to spread competing national narratives and disinformation;
- The role of artificial intelligence (AI) in promoting, and potentially combating, disinformation; and,
- The role of social media companies and government policies on limiting disinformation.
The Role of Social Media and National Disinformation Campaigns
Russia and Ukraine both use social media extensively to portray their versions of the events unfolding, and amplify contrasting narratives about the war, including its causes, consequences, and continuation. Government officials, individual citizens, and state agencies and have all turned to an array of platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Telegram, to upload information. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of content uploaded by these various actors, but the scale of information being uploaded on social media about the war is immense. For instance, in just the first week of the war, videos from a range of sources on TikTok with the tag #Russia and #Ukraine had amassed 37.2 billion and 8.5 billion views, respectively.
At their core, the narratives presented by Russia and Ukraine are diametrically opposed. Russia frames the war in Ukraine, which Putin insists is a “special military operation,” as a necessary defensive measure in response to NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. Putin also frames the military campaign as necessary to “de-nazify” Ukraine and end a purported genocide being conducted be the Ukrainian government against Russian speakers. In contrast, Ukraine’s narrative insists the war is one of aggression, emphasizes its history as a sovereign nation distinct from Russia, and portrays its citizens and armed forces as heroes defending themselves from an unjustified invasion.
Ukraine and Russia are not the only state actors interested and engaged in portraying the war on their own terms. Countries such as China and Belarus have engaged in efforts to portray the conflict on their own terms, and they have launched coordinated disinformation campaigns on social media platforms. These campaigns have broadly downplayed Russia’s responsibility for the war and have promoted anti-U.S. and anti-NATO posts. The mix of narratives, both true and false, originating from different state actors as well as millions of individual users on social media has enlarged tech platforms’ roles in shaping the dynamics of the war and could influence its outcomes.
The scale of information uploaded to social media and the speed with which it proliferates create novel and complex challenges to combating disinformation campaigns. It is often hard to identify the origin of a campaign or its reach, complicating efforts to remove false content in bulk or identify false posts before they reach mass audiences. For example, the active “Ghostwriter” disinformation campaign, attributed to the Belarusian government, uses a sophisticated network of proxy servers and virtual private networks (VPNs), which enabled it to avoid detection for years. Before the operation was uncovered in July 2021, it effectively hacked the social media accounts of European political figures and news outlets and spread fabricated content critical of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) across Eastern Europe. The level of sophistication that these types of modern state-backed disinformation campaigns possess makes them exceedingly difficult to detect early and counter effectively. Russia, in particular, has spent decades developing a propaganda ecosystem of official and proxy communication channels, which it uses to launch wide-reaching disinformation campaigns. For instance, “Operation Secondary Infektion,” one of Russia’s longest ongoing campaigns, has spread disinformation about issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic across over 300 social media platforms since 2014.
The range of social media platforms in use, and the variation in their availability across different countries, hinders the ability to coordinate efforts to combat disinformation, while creating different information ecosystems across geographies. The narratives about the war emerging on social media take different forms, depending on the platform and the region, including within Russia and Ukraine. Facebook and Twitter are both banned within Russia’s borders, but Russian propaganda and disinformation aimed at external audiences still flourishes on these platforms. Within Russia, YouTube and TikTok are still accessible to everyday citizens, but with heavy censorship. The most popular social media platform used within Russia is VKontakte (VK), which hosts 90 percent of internet users in Russia, according to the company’s self-reported statistics. It was previously available and widely used in Ukraine until 2017, but the Ukrainian government blocked access to VK and other Russian social media such as Yandex in an effort to combat online Russian propaganda. In 2020, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy extended the ban on VK until 2023, so it has not facilitated communications between Russians and Ukrainians throughout the war this year.
The government-imposed restrictions placed on these major social media platforms leave Telegram as the main social media platform currently accessible to both Russians and Ukrainians. Telegram is an encrypted messaging service created and owned by Russian tech billionaire Pavel Durov, which is being used in the war for everything from connecting Ukrainian refugees to opportunities for safe passage to providing near-real-time videos of events on the battlefield. Critically, in the fight against disinformation, Telegram has no official policies in place to censor or remove content of any nature. While some channels on Telegram have been shut down, the company does not release official statements on why, and it generally allows the majority of content posted by users to continue circulating, regardless of its nature. This allows Telegram to serve as a mostly unfiltered source of disinformation within Russia and Ukraine and reaches audiences that Western social media platforms have been cut off from. While Telegram does not filter content like many other platforms, it also does not use an algorithm to boost certain posts, and it relies on direct messaging between users. This design makes it difficult for AI tools to effectively boost disinformation. In contrast, on other platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, AI is further enabling the rapid spread of disinformation about the war.
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