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How US and Ukrainian Groups Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble

How US and Ukrainian Groups Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble

WASHINGTON — Using a combination of high-tech and Cold War tactics, Ukrainian activists and Western institutions have begun to penetrate Russia’s propaganda bubble, spreading information about the Ukraine war among Russian citizens to sow doubts about the Kremlin’s calculations.

The effort comes at a particularly urgent moment: Moscow appears to be preparing a new offensive in eastern Ukraine that could be devastatingly bloody for both sides, while mounting reports of atrocities illustrate the brutality of the Kremlin’s tactics.

While Russia presents a sterile version of the war, Ukrainian activists are sending messages highlighting government corruption and incompetence in an effort to undermine confidence in the Kremlin.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-funded independent news organization established decades ago, is trying to push its broadcasts deeper into Russia. Her articles are published in Russian on copies of their websites called “mirrors”, which Russian watchers are looking for in the high-stakes whack-a-mole. Audience numbers rose during the war despite censorship.

US organizations are also promoting the use of software that allows Russian citizens to jump over an emerging firewall that the Kremlin has set up to control Internet access.

Efforts face significant hurdles as the Kremlin tightens its controls on journalists and the internet, passing laws that have forced the closure of independent media outlets, such as the Echo of Moscow. President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to keep Russians in the dark about Europe’s largest ground war since 1945, with casualties largely unreported in the Russian media.

The Russian government has focused in particular on restricting reports of war casualties. In its most recent official announcement, in late March, Russia reported 1,351 military deaths, while the latest US intelligence estimate, shared with Congress in recent days, put the number at 4,000 to 5,000.

But cracks in the Moscow facade are beginning to appear. On Thursday, a Kremlin spokesman acknowledged that Russia had suffered “significant losses”.

After the war broke out in February, Mr. Putin began erecting an Internet firewall similar to China’s to block some Russian and Western news websites and social networks. Russians can still visit Google and YouTube, but many Western sources of news are described as “foreign agents”.

An authoritarian government doesn’t have to maintain a perfect firewall to keep its audience in a propaganda bubble. Many Russians get their news from state-controlled television and radio. Some Russian analysts argue that most citizens support the government for reasons beyond their news system and want to believe the Kremlin’s positions.

US intelligence officials say that is why it is so difficult to push information into Russia and reach the largest population.

Still, US and European officials say it is important for outsiders to try to communicate facts about the war to the Russians.

At the moment, Putin and the invasion remain popular in Russia, according to polls, although analysts warn that such measures of Russian positions are unreliable, mainly because many people are afraid to make anti-war statements. The police arrested thousands of protesters, and many people monitored their observations of Ukraine.

A senior Western intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified or sensitive government assessments, said there were early signs that efforts to break the wall of propaganda might be paying off.

US data analytics firm, FilterLabs.AI, which tracks Russian sentiment on online message boards and other online forums, says it has measured growing anxiety among Russians about conscription and war casualties. Putin recently signed a decree ordering about 134,500 conscripts, although the Defense Ministry said they would not go to Ukraine.

“We may be at a tipping point in Russian sentiment toward the initial invasion of Ukraine, when Russia tried to take over the entire country,” said Jonathan D. Teubner, CEO of FilterLabs.

The email to the 18-year-old Russian was, in some ways, cryptic. He did not directly mention the invasion of Ukraine or allegations of war crimes against Russian soldiers.

Instead, she spoke of the mistreatment of Russian soldiers by their army, and noted that the Russian government was lying to conscripts and, most importantly, providing insufficient food and equipment to the country’s soldiers.

Over the past two weeks, a group of Ukrainian activists, government officials and think tanks, called the Council for Information Strategies of Ukraine, has been sending emails and messages on social media to 15 million Russian men of military age, between the ages of 18 and 27. of Russians, using historical references to prompt them to discuss government-sanctioned news reports.

“The basic problem is that when you want to tackle propaganda, you can’t just say that what you’re showing on TV isn’t true; it doesn’t work that way,” said Sofia Henisdowska, CEO of the council. “We’re slowly trying, through our narratives, to make People are asking about official sources.”

Members of the group say that the most successful publications of Ukrainian activists were built on this topic, focusing on the incompetence and corruption of Russian military leaders.

One of the photos distributed by the group depicted senior Russian military leaders, including Sergei K. Shoigu, the Minister of Defense, with his head full of question marks and General Valery Gerasimov, the great military commander, with his head filled with an image of a luxury yacht. .

Russians tend to dismiss messages highlighting Russian war crimes as US propaganda, according to activists, and the images of Russian victims risk stoking anger toward Ukraine, not the Kremlin.

Mr. Teubner’s company is trying to gauge the success of the Ukrainians – and in recent days has tracked what appears to be growing negative sentiment across Russia about a draft. Henizdovska said that if Ukrainians could sow enough doubt about the Russian government’s credibility, more Russians would seek information from Western-backed Russian-language news media.

During the Cold War, the United States government, and the CIA in particular, helped establish and fund independent media organizations tasked with penetrating the Iron Curtain with fact-based news.

With the invasion of Ukraine, organizations are once again operating with a sense of urgency as they push for accurate information within an authoritarian state.

News organizations use both old-school and 21st-century methods, creating complex digital broadcasts and information campaigns.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the region’s main private and independent news organization with US government funding, produces war journalism from reporters on the front lines in Ukraine and operates quietly in Russia.

Known as RFE/RL, the group has a Russian-language news website and 24-hour Russian television network, Current Time, as well as websites targeting regional audiences in a wide variety of languages, including Tatar, Chechen, and Belarusian.

Like some other news organizations and US-based social media companies, its websites have been blocked in Russia as of late February. It suspended its main operations in Russia last month.

RFE/RL has opened offices in Lithuania and Latvia as a new base for its Russia reporting. The group also has a medium-wave radio transmitter in Lithuania to send broadcasts to Russia which can be picked up on the AM frequency. Officials said they hoped to increase the signal strength.

The group uses Telegram, a chat app, to publish some of its reports and send the web addresses of its new “mirror” sites.

A sister organization based in Washington that also receives funding from the US government, the Open Technology Fund, is creating mirror sites and constantly creating new sites to stay one step ahead of Russian government censors.

“In the context of the new censorship, Mirror Program has grown rapidly and Russian censorship has proven to be a very active adversary,” said Nat Crichton, the organization’s senior vice president for programs. “Our partners are working to create a more automated system where new sites are created as soon as Russian censors block them.”

The technology group is arranging some Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty sites that will be hosted by Tor, a digital communications network that helps protect regular Internet users from surveillance. The funding is given to companies and groups that develop virtual private network applications, programs known as VPNs, that help citizens bypass online firewalls. Smart TV owners in Russia can also download an application for the moment.

And Current Time is among the RFE / RL networks and programs that have channels on YouTube, which, unlike Facebook and Instagram, are not blocked by Russian censors. RFE/RL said the number of video views on its YouTube channels more than tripled in the first three weeks of the war, to 237.6 million, compared to the previous three weeks.

“We are seeing a rise in audience numbers for Russians within the country and also for Russians abroad,” said Jimmy Fly, President and CEO of RFE/RL. “The challenge is: Can we maintain that over time? Does the interest fade away?”

In mid-March, Russian media began reporting that Russian losses in Ukraine were low, in contrast to much higher Western estimates. The reports, according to an analysis by FilterLabs, came as concern about the country’s war dead began appearing on local online message boards — and as soldiers’ coffins began to be returned to their homes.

Stories about Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and Russian prisoners of war are among the most popular across RFE/RL platforms, said Patrick Buehler, head of digital strategy for the news organization. News agency reporters in Ukraine who learned the identities of the dead or captured Russians pass this information on to their colleagues in Russia, who then try to find and interview the families.

The software, developed by FilterLabs, has begun to track changes in public sentiment and shifts in how Russian news outlets talk about wartime casualties. Some skeptics question this type of AI-based sentiment analysis, and FilterLabs acknowledges that the technology has limits.

But the group says the overall trends it identifies are credible and show concern about the draft is growing, as discussions on message boards seem to indicate Russians are growing increasingly concerned about their children being drafted into the military to fight in Ukraine. Tupner said.

“Public sentiment when talking about the draft is very negative in popular forums,” he said. “This shows us what is likely to be one of the biggest weaknesses of those trying to maintain their support for the war over the long term.”

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