First comes the informational chaos, then the mass dissemination of messages: NGO CAT-UA has identified the patterns of Russian propaganda spread

Propaganda is built on anger and contempt, and it hardly operates on positive emotions. Russian narratives in Ukraine are sometimes promoted through pseudo-patriotic and pseudo-Ukrainian users.

The organization CAT-UA, which is dedicated to studying the Ukrainian information field, particularly Russian propaganda, has released a study titled ”Strategies for spreading Russian propaganda and disinformation”. It focuses on analyzing propaganda campaigns of racism through social media from the onset of the full-scale invasion until August 31, 2023.

The researchers selected six narratives that were created and promoted by Russia. Through the YouScan monitoring system, all publications on these topics – posts, comments, and reposts – that were publicly available on the platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, Vkontakte, TikTok, and “Odnoklassniki” in Ukrainian and Russian languages were collected. In total, 8.2 million messages were analyzed. The following topics were chosen for the study:

  • The denial of crimes committed by Russians in Bucha.
  • Negative portrayal of Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced persons.
  • Fake about the sale of Ukrainian children.
  • Reports of the destruction of Western weapons in Ukraine.
  • False claims about the resale of this weapons by Ukraine.
  • Alleged illness of Volodymyr Zelensky.

We’ve learned many interesting details.

In particular, it was discovered that the ban on Russian propagandists on major Western online platforms is effective.

In the first months of the full-scale invasion, Russian propagandists reached hundreds of millions of users solely in the Cyrillic segment – thanks to YouTube, Facebook, and other Western platforms. However, later campaigns had to rely on Telegram and other Russian platforms. And they no longer had such reach as before,” says Artem Zakharchenko, head of NGO CAT-UA .

Coverage of propaganda messages on key topics.

Russian propaganda is primarily built on negative emotions, most frequently on anger towards Ukrainians or our Western allies.

The distribution of emotions present in messages of Russian propaganda.

Among the typical approaches of Russians is the blending of truth and falsehood in a single message. It’s also interesting that bots on social networks mainly operate through reposts rather than comments: because comments were primarily used on Western platforms.

On the topic of refugees, mechanical reprinting of texts from other accounts was recorded. The Bucha topic was a priority for bot comments.

The propaganda machine has a complex structure. CAT-UA has shown signs of a large structure that plans Russian campaigns simultaneously in different countries, selecting specific arguments for each. Propagandists have several channels of information dissemination: the “Official” vertical, which typically spreads the most extensive and verified messages, the “Military” vertical, groups of channels operating in other countries, including Ukraine, and completely “trash” bot networks spreading the most incredible messages.

This entire apparatus employs several typical strategies. For instance, in response to an immediate crisis, propaganda seeks to create chaos by disseminating numerous contradictory messages simultaneously. However, when there is an opportunity to prepare adequately, it constructs clearer and more consistent narratives.

The denial of crimes committed by Russians in Bucha.

It is interesting that the propaganda of the Russian aggressors in all topics utilized appeals to Western speakers for enhanced credibility. For instance, in refuting the crimes in Bucha in April 2022, Russians initially floated various versions, suggesting that the victims were actors, mannequins, or casualties of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to bewilder the audience. However, in the second stage, in May, the campaign to whitewash the image of the Russian army revolved around statements made by Frenchman Adrien Boca. The Russians’ primary source was his remarks on French radio. Subsequently, this information was seized upon and amplified by propagandist Solovyov.

False claims about the resale of this weapons by Ukraine.

Russian narratives are propagated through pseudo-patriotic and pseudo-Ukrainian users. This was evident during the Russian campaign alleging the purported resale of Western weapons by Ukraine. These messages were disseminated by blogger Yuriy Shvets, as well as bloggers who deliberately demonstrate allegiance to one of Ukraine’s patriotic political factions.

To create the narrative about the resale of weapons, pseudo-patriotic bot farms on Facebook were utilized. Distrust towards the Ukrainian government was spread, alleging that through this smuggling, the government was “picking fights with the West” and “Ukrainian soldiers were lacking this weaponry”.

Russian Telegram channels, masquerading as Ukrainian ones, such as “Резидент” and “Легітимний,” also joined this informational campaign about the “resale of weapons.” These channels also cited Western sources of information.

Statements from politicians from other countries, including Natalia Gavrilita from Moldova, became part of the campaign. “Propagandists were also ‘aided’ by congresswoman Victoria Spartz, triggering one of the surges in such mentions,” researchers noted.

In addition to official media outlets of the Putin regime, the Russian military-blogger community on Telegram plays a significant role in propagating propaganda, at least to the Russian audience.

However, analysts have also noticed that even distant from politics thematic groups on “Odnoklassniki” and VK, meticulously planted Russian videos containing disinformation, particularly about Bucha and weapon resale. In thematic groups focusing on food, sports, beauty, movies, etc., unrelated to war or politics, such as “Recipes for all occasions of life,” “Beautiful photos,” videos with the main propaganda themes are usually circulated. For example, in apolitical groups on “Odnoklassniki”, shock content about “attacks” by “Azov” on peaceful refugees was widely posted. These Russian social networks have created a “safe space” for Russian propaganda, as inconvenient posts are deleted.

Negative portrayal of Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced persons.

The research also confirmed that Russians conducted an information-psychological special operation aimed at discrediting and partially dehumanizing Ukrainians through the topic of refugees. Poland and Moldova were central in this narrative.

To achieve this, Russians promoted messages portraying Ukrainians as aggressive and greedy, worsening the criminal situation in “host countries,” and supposedly strange demands of refugees, which were portrayed as irrational. The theme was presented through personalized stories, involving bloggers, “people’s speakers”. Even official propagandists referred to stories allegedly heard from participants themselves.

On the VK social network, bots promoted the idea that Moldova suffered the most from Ukrainian refugees. Typical messages in March 2022, which were apparently prepared even before the full-scale invasion, included: “Ukrainians behave loudly in Moldova, flaunt their money, irritate locals,” “Moldova is expelling refugees”, “Ukrainians are taking jobs in Poland,” “violating laws in Germany,” “Ukrainians have brought venereal diseases to Estonia,” and so on.

Researchers at CAT-UA suggest that the goal of this narrative at the onset of the major war was to encourage Ukrainians to go to Russia instead of Europe, where allegedly “they don’t like us all.” The aim for the Western audience was to sow discord between locals and Ukrainians and convince them of an impending humanitarian crisis.

The narrative of “uneducated refugees” gained popularity on Facebook as well. Users from Ukraine massively shared calls to behave decently abroad: “we didn’t come here for a vacation”. “The texts first appeared in Polish groups. Often, they are duplicated in Polish and presented as the cry of both Ukrainians and Poles. At the same time, Poles themselves spread both this call and debunk Russian propaganda about ungrateful refugees”– the research says.

Fake about the sale of Ukrainian children.

Russian propaganda also developed a fake narrative that Ukrainians are selling underage children for organs abroad, involving the Armed Forces of Ukraine in this process, allegedly transporting children from the occupied territories for sale or for the entertainment of pedophiles. In addition to children, according to the false reports of Russian propaganda, even soldiers become victims of the so-called “black transplantology” in Ukraine. Through “Odnoklassniki” posts about this were spread to CIS countries such as Uzbekistan, to a lesser extent Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

For credibility, IPSO authors mixed news about pedophiles, statements from foreign speakers about the human trafficking issue, and fake news about the Ukrainian government. As researchers note, foreign speakers for such messages “often became representatives of organizations with strong Russian lobby, such as the OSCE, or simply ‘paid’ Kremlin experts like Douglas Macgregor.” Following the rules of propaganda, truth and falsehood were mixed here. Real messages from Western figures about suspicious cases were supplemented with fabricated messages about the involvement of the Ukrainian government in human trafficking. Individual cases were inflated to the level of a widely recognized problem.

Reports of the destruction of Western weapons in Ukraine.

To promote the narrative of the mass “destruction of Western weapons by the Russian Federation”, Western speakers were also actively involved, whose statements were disseminated both to the Russian and foreign audience via Twitter.

Alleged illness of Volodymyr Zelensky.

Another narrative noticed in Russia was the alleged illness or drug addiction of Volodymyr Zelensky. At the beginning of the war, Russian propaganda attempted to convince the audience of his incapacity. Interestingly, this narrative about Zelensky’s supposed illness was also promoted with the help of Russian tarologists and fortune-tellers. In 2023, the narrative evolved into a message that the West was dissatisfied with Ukraine’s counteroffensive and was therefore preparing to remove the president.

Overall, researchers have noticed that Russian misinformers select the “gender” of bot profiles to the theme they are promoting. Female accounts are used for emotional posts on humanitarian topics, while male accounts are used for geopolitical and military discussions in the format of “armchair expertise”.

The fact that adapted messages about the ingratitude of Ukrainian refugees appeared simultaneously, for example, in Moldova and Germany, indicates the ability to conduct coordinated Russian “active measures” in different countries.

About the NGO CAT-UA.

The organization’s goal is to promote transparent and modern principles and formats of communication in Ukraine, as well as internationally, regarding Ukraine. The organization conducts research to combat manipulation, deceptive influence, and information special operations.

For contact:

Artem Zakharchenko,
Coordinator of the CAT-UA volunteer group;