The Digital Front of Ukraine’s Fight Against Russia

Working from bomb shelters has become the norm for Ukrainians like Roman Osadchuk.

“At the beginning, there were a lot of air raids. Nowadays, there are maybe two a week,” said Osadchuk. “I mean, I was in the shelter today,” he said offhandedly when he spoke with VOA from Kyiv.

Most times Osadchuk still has a “solid internet connection” and sometimes he has Wi-Fi in the shelter so he can still work, “just underground.”

That work is part of the digital front of the war in Ukraine. Based in Ukraine’s capital, Osadchuk monitors Russian disinformation for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

His work is part of a broader international effort from open-source researchers, analysts and journalists to study Russian disinformation, debunk false claims, and document violations.

Russia has deployed propaganda about Ukraine for years. And with the full invasion in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin falsely claimed the war was necessary to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and prevent genocide.

Some of those false narratives and tactics have changed in the past 12 months, but the omnipresence of Russian propaganda has remained constant, analysts said.

“This is the most digital conflict to ever occur,” and when it comes to the digital front, Russia has been on the back foot, said Nina Jankowicz, vice president in the U.S. for London’s independent nonprofit, the Center for Information Resilience.

“I think they expected, just like in the kinetic side of the war, to be really unmatched in the digital side of the war, and that absolutely has not been the case,” Jankowicz told VOA.

Open-source researchers have been working to “throw cold water on the lies coming out of Russia,” Jankowicz said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”

The Center for Information Resilience launched the Eyes on Russia Project in early 2022, as Russian troops amassed along the Ukraine border.

When troops crossed into Ukraine, the project worked to verify and geolocate incidents and attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Like detectives, researchers use everything from satellite imagery and shadows to street signs and license plates to help verify events, she said.

Those skills have helped the team to expose lies and debunk “everything from ‘Ukraine is full of neo-Nazis,’ to ‘Ukraine is attacking its own citizens,’” Jankowicz said.

The propaganda is mostly shared on social media, messaging platforms like Telegram, news sites and TV.

Initially the focus of propaganda was to justify the invasion, according to Ruslan Deynychenko, of the Ukrainian fact checking site and a journalist who previously contributed to VOA’s Ukrainian Service.

They created stories about de-Nazification and liberation, nuclear programs and secret laboratories where Ukrainians and Americans supposedly developed “combat mosquitoes” and other bioweapons, said Deynychenko. But about six months after the invasion, Deynychenko noticed that the rhetoric on Russian networks changed.

“They openly admit that they are fighting Ukraine and Ukrainians, and it’s not that they’re liberating Ukrainians from a neo-Nazi regime,” Deynychenko told VOA from Kyiv. “They basically [try to] justify Russian efforts to kill Ukrainians, to bomb Ukrainian cities.”

Russia’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

The intensity of the work is a challenge, the researchers said.

“It became more difficult to figure out which case is more relevant,” said Nika Aleksejeva, who researches Russian disinformation about Ukraine at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

What would have been noteworthy before the war isn’t as important today, she said. “The baseline has moved.”

Her colleague Osadchuk agreed. “It’s kind of toxic when you eat a lot of it,” Osadchuk said about the volume of disinformation he has analyzed over the past year.

For Toma Istomina, deputy chief editor at the English-language online newspaper, The Kyiv Independent, reporting accurately on the war is one of the best ways to combat disinformation.

“Information is probably as big of a tool in this war as the traditional weapons used on the ground,” Istomina told VOA from Vinnytsia, a city southwest of Kyiv.

“Information has really been weaponized by Russia for a while against Ukraine,” she added, but “Ukraine did a very good job during this war debunking Russia’s bullshit.”

The Kyiv Independent makes a point to not report on every lie that Russia tells, Istomina said, in part because there are just so many. But another reason is that reporting too much on Russian propaganda could risk legitimizing it.

Putin likely considers the Russian audience — inside the country and the diaspora — to be the most important target for disinformation, but Ukrainians are also in his sights, according to Osadchuk. The Global South has also become an increasingly important target, he said.

It’s always challenging to measure how effective disinformation is at influencing public opinion, Aleksejeva said, but propaganda probably helps the Russian domestic audience “cope with such an uncomfortable reality, basically escape it somehow.”

As for the West, she said, “it was much harder to win this battle from the very beginning.”

The fight against propaganda has extra relevance for Ukrainian researchers.

Exposing disinformation and documenting violations is a way for them to contribute to the war effort.

“Every Ukrainian on February 24 [2022] felt that there is a need to resist in some way, where you have some skills,” Osadchuk said.

For StopFake’s Deynychenko, he sees his work as a way to gather evidence that could be used to prosecute people “who used media as a powerful weapon” in the war. “We believe that those people should be held responsible,” he said.

And at The Kyiv Independent, Istomina said the mentality is that “when we work, we’re not victims — we’re fighters.”

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