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  • War in Ukraine and Disinformation Newsletter 26 April 2022

    26 April 2022

    Ukraine header

    State-backed media on platforms: Russia suffers from the ban while China takes the lead

    We share our research and colleagues’ analyses that explain how misinformation operations during the Russia-Ukraine war are changing the global information environment. The newsletter is a collaboration between the Programme on Democracy and Technology and PeaceTech Lab. It is prepared by Dr Aliaksandr Herasimenka with the assistance of Danielle Recanati.

    Our Research

    Russian diplomats keep being liked on Twitter

    According to DemTech researcher Marcel Schliebs, Russian diplomats retain record levels of attention on Twitter while spreading pro-war propaganda. Since the beginning of the war, they’ve received hundreds of thousands of engagements – likes, shares and retweets – each week. After reaching over one million weekly engagements in March, these numbers have slowly started to decline towards pre-war levels, but are still at over 500,000 engagements per week. Complete lists of Russian and Chinese diplomatic accounts are now published as one database integrated within the R package “disinfo” available to any researcher.
    Chinese state-backed media dominate the coverage of controversial war topics

    Each week, we track how the global digital platform audiences interact with reporting on Ukraine by Chinese, Iranian and Russian state-backed media in English*. During the last week of March, we found that the social media audiences of Chinese state-backed media engaged especially actively with articles criticising NATO as a source of the conflict. These articles received more than 60,000 engagements over a week. Chinese, Iranian and Russian state-backed media also actively amplified the “gas crisis” (Russian gas supply to Europe and Russia’s attempts to force a new way of paying for it). In total, the topic received at least 70,000 engagements across the platforms we monitor. Finally, an unusually high proportion of coverage (more than 25%) – and relatively low engagement (less than 30,000) – were received by articles discussing the Indian stance in the conflict and its foreign implications. Our research shows that Chinese – not Russian – coverage of these topics received the most attention on social media across the state-backed media we track.

    Colleagues’ Research

    Russian official efforts to build a rationale for the invasion of Ukraine through disinformation date decades back. Outlining their research for The Conversation, Juris Pupcenoks and Graig Klein explain that they examined how Putin, key Russian diplomats, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs crafted “strategic stories” about Ukraine. For example, as far back as 2008, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the Ukrainian government of sympathising with Nazis. The researchers argue that their findings “indicate that the world should listen when Russia starts trash-talking other countries.”

    The most widely shared Facebook posts on the Bucha massacre are those questioning it. Analysts from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue examined the ten most shared posts on Facebook mentioning Bucha in 20 countries, finding that 27.5% cast doubt on the legitimacy of images shared by trusted media. These posts gained significantly more traction online than posts aligned with mainstream narratives. Facebook failed to include fact-checking labels to any of the 200 posts analysed.

    News Briefing

    Actions taken by tech companies on Russian propaganda networks have “hamstringed” the Kremlin’s ability to target and reach a global audience.  Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian media outlets such as RT, Sputnik News, and Ruptly have lost access to a wide range of services, such as Google Analytics and Facebook Domain Insights, hindering their ability to pinpoint specific audiences with content, Politico reports. Despite these actions, Politico identified multiple “loopholes” that may give Russia access to some services. ISD’s study of the impact of Russian state-backed media in France showed “the sharp decline in Russian state media’s production and reach on social media.” At the same time, the researchers noted a significant increase in the posting activity of and engagements with Russian diplomatic accounts on Twitter.

    Kremlin officials believe that its pro-war propaganda has “gone overboard with whipping up the topic of Nazism” in Ukraine. Meduza cites unnamed Kremlin sources that fear the unheard volume of propaganda and hate unleashed on Russian audiences by state-backed media made it difficult for Putin to find an “exit strategy” from the war.

    Russia now increasingly targets West and Central Africa with its online content. According to the Washington Post, this signals Putin’s attempts to expand influence and mitigate reputational damage from the war in Ukraine. The influence campaign, which began well before the war in Ukraine, leverages tensions with France and promotes pro-Russia narratives.

    Our Research Methodology

    Data for the period between 23-03-22 to 30-03-22: we collect data from several popular platforms using their Application Programme Interfaces. Our research is informed by a combination of manual and automatic coding of online content. We capture articles that mention “Ukraine,” “Luhansk,” “Donetsk,” “NATO,” and “Russia” in the title or caption of the article and that are shared on platforms. The articles are filtered down to only articles written in English. After selecting the articles, we gather the full text for each one to create a model. This model groups topics of articles together based on how similar the contents in the article text were to each other. We label the article clusters by reviewing the top 20 words most likely to appear in the articles for that cluster and the top five articles with the strongest connection to the topic model. The table below shows the news outlets included in the topic model.


    Outlet Country
    People’s Daily, ECNS, CCTV, CGTN, China Daily, Global Times, Xinhua Net, Beijing Review China
    RT, Sputnik News, Tass Russia
    Tasnim News, Press TV, IRNA Iran

    Research by Anna George, Dorian Quelle and Marcel Schliebs, Programme on Democracy and Technology

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