Since the start of the full-scale war, Russia has carried over 2,000 cyberattacks at Ukrainian state and commercial organizations; exercised hundreds of IPSOs in social media and has been regularly sharing their propaganda with all available means.
The scenario of the Russian occupation of Ukrainian cities and villages also underlines the importance of informational counteraction: the occupiers are jamming Ukrainian mobile operators, seizing offices and stealing the equipment of local Internet providers. In their place, they start their own “gray” operators, block access to social networks and Ukrainian websites. Russia limits everything they cannot control. OPORA recorded that as of March 2023, 979 Ukrainian websites were blocked in the temporarily occupied territories, including 10 websites of state authorities of Ukraine. At least 46 Ukrainian providers have also stopped working, with no access to Viber, Instagram, Twitter, Google and YouTube.
However, the enemy cannot afford to leave the infospace unfilled. Earlier, OPORA showed how Russia uses their social network Vkontakte for information “import substitution” and distribution of propaganda in the temporarily occupied territories. Another social network that is de jure outside the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation is a propaganda-adaptable platform of the Telegram messenger. Under the umbrella of the fight for free speech, they refuse to moderate content on their platform.
In summer 2022, OPORA conducted our first study of Russian propaganda on TOTs. At that time, we compiled a database of 118 occupation-based Telegram channels. To update the data, we analyzed reposts in the known channels and expanded the database to 640 channels.
There are 5 thematic groups to be outlined:
- Local media: These channels create a picture of everyday life in the occupied cities and towns; they discredit the Ukrainian authorities and the Armed Forces, share Russian disinformation about the war, and build a positive image of the Russian army.
- Administrative channels. This category includes channels of occupation “administrations,” police, employment centers, regional departments of Russian ministries in the occupied territories, etc.
- Local organizations — charitable or volunteer foundations, professional associations, etc.
- Pages of public persons — heads of local occupation administrations, deputies of occupation councils, local pro-Russian media, etc.
- Exchange/sale of goods and services, job search. This category is especially interesting because you can have an idea of the daily life of the inhabitants in the temporarily occupied territories who self-organize in search for necessities or services. For example, we found channels that offer exchange of hryvnias for rubles, help search for building materials and labor to rebuild destroyed dwellings; there are pages for exchanging things or products, etc.
Whereas by February 2022, new pro-Russian channels had been appearing sporadically, such as several channels per month, after February 2022 they appeared almost daily, often more than one per day.
In order to evaluate the content shared by the occupation Telegram resources, we randomly selected 100 channels and overviewed their content. It can be divided into the following thematic blocks:
- Social support for residents of the TOTs: information on the available types of financial assistance to vulnerable categories of the population (pensioners, new mothers, victims of the war, people with disabilities, etc.), clarification of how and where to get the assistance in accordance with Russian legislation.
- Content aimed at integration with Russian and Soviet culture: promotion of the work of Russian writers and artists, posts about historical and cultural lectures, exhibitions, events of the so-called “national-patriotic education” of youth, etc.
- History references to the Soviet era. Although this point can be considered part of the previous cluster, the high level of attention of the occupiers and collaborators to Soviet history in general or to the history of a particular settlement in the Soviet period makes it possible to bring historical content into a separate subgroup. Occupation-based channels promote nostalgia for the USSR: they write about the celebration of significant dates of the Soviet period, make headings like “this day in [Soviet] history”, publish photos of cities and villages of that time, etc.
- Integration with other regions of Russia: publications on professional support options of various institutions on the TOTs by relevant institutions from Russia, exchange of experience, charitable assistance, activities of the occupation authorities or local self-government bodies of Russian cities and regions for the reconstruction of damaged or destroyed settlements, activities under the auspices of the so-called “patronage” of Russian cities over Ukrainian ones. It also includes educational publications on Russian legislation, such as the calls for accepting a Russian passport and instructions on how to do it; explanations on the organization of the Russian health care system, etc. It is noteworthy that the issues of business development and promotion at TOTs are hardly covered at all.
- Discrediting Ukraine and the Ukrainian authorities: misinformation about the Ukrainian state and local authorities, accusations of Ukraine of deliberate shelling of the civilian population on TOTs, regular reports of “Ukrainian provocations.” In parallel, we see publications aimed at building a positive image of the Russian army.
- The fight against alcohol, drugs, “counterfeit” and “caches of Ukrainian weapons”. Starting this study, we did not expect to cluster such content into a separate category. However, the amount of the content from this area leaves us no other options. Occupation channels regularly inform about the seizure of domestic or illegally imported alcohol and narcotic substances. Periodically, the authors of the posts indicate that these “underground fighters” are “Ukrainians who wait”, “fire designators for the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” former ATO soldiers — they further discredit the pro-Ukrainian population, the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Ukraine as a state.
The example of the Telegram clearly illustrates the importance of the information component for the occupiers. The fact that in Ukraine-controlled territory, Russia fails to successfully disseminate their own disinformation, testifies not so much to the low quality of the enemy's information operations but rather to the tireless and consistent work to improve media literacy carried out by Ukrainian media workers and the public sector.
The freedom of Telegram certainly offers certain advantages, also on the information front for Ukraine. Residents of TOTs have access to the channels of Ukrainian media, state and local authorities. However, it is important to remember that for Ukrainians in the occupation, the consumption of pro-Ukrainian content is highly risky. The occupiers do not spare resources for policing and monitoring the civilian population. For example, checking smartphones and other devices is a mandatory component of Russian filtering when leaving TOTs.
Also, the case of the use of Telegram as a weapon proves that the crusade of the messenger’s owners for almost unlimited freedom of speech contributes Russia’s committing increasingly more crimes. Freedom of speech is possible under conditions of equal and safe dialogue between all participants. Otherwise, at least one of them will inevitably abuse this freedom.
The full text of OPORA's research on the information space on TOTs can be found here.