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The Russia-Ukraine War’s Information Front

What’s happening?

As the Russia-Ukraine war rages on the ground an information war unfolds online. 

Russia has been known for dominating the information warfare space for several years—from leveraging QAnon conspiracies in the United States to justifying military actions in Syria and Georgia. 

But this war is different: governments and social media companies better understand these tactics and are more prepared to predict and counter their influence. 

Several factors have reinforced Ukraine’s ability to combat Russian information threats so far in the war: 

  • Ukraine has developed a network of allies including NATO states, activists, and open-source intelligence (OSINT) analysts. This network and its crowdsourced efforts are committed to understanding and fact-checking Russian state narratives (like those addressed in this public spreadsheet by the investigative journalist group Bellingcat).
  • Ukraine and its allies have been proactive in identifying and verifying Russian narratives. Even before the invasion, analysts countered the Kremlin’s denial of a military buildup by widely sharing images of the scale of Russian border activities.
  • Heroic figures (Volodymyr Zelensky) and martyr-based narratives (the ghost of Kyiv) are being pushed to boost morale. This is bolstered by images of Russian setbacks and reporting Russian casualty numbers.
  • Ukraine has made efforts to directly address Russians. Now that the Kremlin has blocked access to some Western news and social media, shortwave radio services are helping bypass internet censorship and deliver outside media to Russian citizens. Big tech is also actively removing Russian state media from its platforms.

Ukraine’s actions have meant that the predominant narrative in Western media is that Ukraine is winning the information war. Some sources claim that this is still too early to call for several reasons. Even though Ukraine’s resistance has caused unexpected setbacks for Russia, this could still change if and when Russia’s propaganda machine adapts.

Some of the Kremlin’s information strategies are also covert and appear to work—for example, exploiting left-wing media and real issues (like racism against African and Asian people trying to flee Ukraine). These tactics are effective at hiding their origin and deflecting attention away from Russia.

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What’s the impact?

Ukraine’s proactive counter-information strategy (something Political Strategist Peter W. Singer calls pre-bunking) has several impacts. For one, this strategy can neutralize an adversary’s information tactics before they have a chance to gain traction—unlike past Russian information campaigns, which went largely unopposed and were debunked only after going viral. 

Additionally, Ukraine’s narratives have put pressure on foreign countries to increase support and foreign aid. They’ve also boosted morale, encouraged volunteer fighters from home and abroad, and gained support from Russian nationals, whose anti-war protests have resulted in thousands of arrests. These support channels could have significant impacts on the war’s timeline and outcome.

However, the war is still in its early days. Maintaining robust information tactics will be crucial to Ukraine’s resistance, especially if Russian information strategies adapt and become more effective. 

In addition to positive impacts, some experts say that big tech should be careful about how they remove adversary media to avoid drawbacks down the road. According to Brandon Silverman from CrowdTangle, big tech’s choice to delete rather than archive Russian state media will make it harder to study and investigate war crimes as future researchers try to unpack the conflict.

How Can OSINT Help?

For Ukraine and its allies, evaluating information tactics on both sides will be crucial in the coming weeks and months. We’ve already seen the value of OSINT experts in analyzing and fact-checking Russian state narratives. OSINT tools, which help analysts gather, process, and analyze publicly-available web content, are necessary to make this process both thorough and scalable. 

OSINT tools are valuable assets in the Russia-Ukraine information war for a few reasons:

  • Data sources that are mainstream in the West—like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—are not mainstream in Russia. Advanced OSINT tools like the Echosec Systems Platform offer networks relevant in Russia, like OK.ru, local forums, and alternative news outlets.
  • Analysts will need to understand how public sentiment is changing within the Russian population. This can be hard to assess from the outside, but OSINT platforms covering Russian data sources can provide more accurate insights.
  • OSINT tools are effective at producing real-time analytics and trends, like emerging sentiment, hashtags, and narratives, in a target information environment. These insights can change rapidly and are hard to generate efficiently without the right software.

To learn more about OSINT and the use of OSINT tools in the Russia-Ukraine war, contact us today.