Mobilizing for war: State-controlled networks and war propaganda on Russian social media

October 18, 2022
  • Maxim Alyukov
    PhD in Social Sciences, Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s Russia Institute (King’s College London) and a researcher with Public Sociology Laboratory (St. Petersburg)
  • Maria Kunilovskaya
    PhD in Contrastive Linguistics, researcher with the Research Group in Computational Linguistics, University of Wolverhampton (UK)
  • Andrei Semenov
    PhD in Political Science, Senior Researcher, Centre for Comparative History and Politics
Based on their analysis of the changing discourse on Russian state media and social media, Maxim Alyukov, Maria Kunilovskaya and Andrei Semenov conclude that the Kremlin relied on regime-affiliated online networks to prepare the public for mobilization.  
Time Will Tell (Vremya Pokazhet), the main daytime political talk show on Channel One. Source: Youtube
In September 2022, the Putin regime found itself in the midst of a strategic blunder, facing both external and internal challenges. Ukraine's counteroffensive in Kharkiv Region demonstrated serious problems that the Russian military couldn’t solve. One particular issue — a lack of manpower on the frontline — had been discussed since the start of the war, with a “hidden mobilization” serving as a substitute. The Kremlin's insistence that the war was a limited “special military operation” (“SVO”) conducted by professional soldiers rather than a full-scale war run counter to the very idea of a full mobilization. In an opinion poll conducted in late July, very few claimed to be ready to fight in the war themselves. Playing on these mass expectations, time and again the propagandists told the public that sending ordinary conscripts was not part of the plan.

At the same time, in preparation for a full mobilization, the regime started to draft amendments introducing the concepts of “martial law” and “mobilization” to the criminal code in early July. It also started to shift its narrative about the justification for the invasion from vague concepts like “denazification” and “demilitarization” to a more familiar discourse on countering NATO expansion and defending the “Russkiy mir.” Leveraging its control over traditional and social media, the Kremlin's propaganda machine unleashed a flood of falsehoods and disinformation, using armies of voenkors (military correspondents), online commentators and co-opted bloggers to shape the discourse about the “SVO” to prepare Russians for the announcement of a “partialmobilization” on September 21.

To better understand the Kremlin’s astroturf political communication, we have extracted messages related to the Russia-Ukraine war from Russian mass and social media. We obtained a large corpus (47,553 messages from the mass media and 833,518 messages from social media), which we used to track the key terms and topics over the course of July-August 2022. We show that the Kremlin was preparing for the mobilization before its announcement: it increasingly used regime-affiliated networks to frame the invasion as a war with NATO, issued calls to rally around Putin and unite in response to the existential threat to the Fatherland, and dehumanized Ukrainians. We also observe that the propaganda machine coordinates across its extensive networks to patch its narrative through the skepticism and critiques of the war voiced by unconvinced citizens and anti-regime activists.

“Networked authoritarianism” Russian-style

The RuNet was not always littered with bots, trolls and informational junk. Throughout the 2000s, it was largely uncontrolled and hosted many platforms for genuine and critical political communication. The situation changed after 2011-12 For Fair Elections! campaign. The Duma passed dozens of laws restricting freedom of speech online. Simultaneously, the government developed a sophisticated system of astroturf digital political communication, including thousands of state-controlled bloggers and online communities, paid trolls and automated bots on social media. In the 2010s, Russia demonstrated another model of “networked authoritarianism.”

Trolls and bots perform a variety of counterintuitive functions. For instance, in their attempts to increase pro-regime sentiment, trolls often fail to advance regime narratives but instead distract citizens from substantive discussions and decrease critical sentiment. Bots play an important role in promoting links to regime-friendly online sources and making specific accounts more visible on the web (e.g. scholars found that between 13% and 63% of Instagram followers of Russian governors could be bots). In addition, bots create informational noise during key political events, such as protests, making it more difficult for users and potential participants to find relevant political information. In sum, the Kremlin forged a formidable digital army and infrastructure to bombard Russians with propaganda. After the invasion in February, the network was relied upon again, this time to spread propaganda about the war. The question remains: how does it help to maintain the grip over citizens’ beliefs and aspirations?
Figure 1. Normalized frequency of key war justification claims in three-day intervals. Source: authors' data.
Preparing the public for mobilization

In our earlier report, we documented the adjustments the Kremlin's propaganda was making to the quantity of war-related messages and the quality of their content. We showed that from the peak of the first two weeks of the war, the tsunami of information about the “SVO” faded and stabilized by mid-summer. Further investigation, however, revealed that the social media has its own dynamics, with prowar users spreading the argument that this is a war and it requires bold decisions and moves. These differences can be clearly seen from the changes in the main war justification claims (“denazification,” “demilitarization,” “defense of Donbas people/Russian language”). Figure 1 compares normalized frequencies (term usage per 100,000 words in three-day intervals) and shows that on social media there are spikes that don’t necessarily coincide with surges of specific terms in the official media.

Focusing on social media messages, we discovered that July-August saw several coordinated attempts to promote a pro-mobilization narrative, which contained three basic elements: NATO as the real enemy that Russia is fighting, the need for patriotic unity, and the dehumanization of Ukraine and its people.
References to the NATO threat have continued to play an important role in prowar social media narratives — even more than in the traditional media."
In August, prowar groups twice launched a massive effort to promote video and text messages (see the spikes in the RHS chart in Figure 2) that used heavily charged language to portray Ukraine as a NATO satellite and Ukrainians as nationalists. The very large number of identical posts suggests that these messages were strategically promoted by the network of state-controlled accounts. As most of them contained some pro-mobilization rhetoric — such as the idea that the “SVO” is the last stand of Russia against the West — the goal of these messages was most likely to lay the groundwork for the announcement of the “partial mobilization” on September 21.
Figure 2. Mentions of NATO (normalized frequency) in the Russia-Ukraine war context, three-day intervals. Source: authors' data.
Patriotic unity

Stemming from the claim that Ukraine is just a proxy for the “collective West,” the call for a “patriotic unity” constitutes another central pillar of the mobilization narrative. On August 3, for instance, 5% of all war-related messages on social media (903 out of 17,196) promoted the video New Challenges for Russia (Novye vyzovy dlia Rossii) created by the prowar nationalist group Essence of Time (Sut’ Vremeni). The video accuses the West of attacking Russia and calls for a patriotic unification in response to military failures and internal challenges. The spike around August 22-25 reflects discussions around Ukraine’s Independence Day but also represents another coordinated attempt to shape public opinion: 17% of all war-related messages on August 25 (3,312 out of 20,006) promoted the video Why Russia Cannot Withstand a Long Conflict with the West (Pochemu Rossiia ne smozhet vystoiat’ v dolgom konflikte s Zapadom) created by the same group. It stated that sacrifice and a patriotic unification should be the response to military failures and internal challenges — otherwise Russia is doomed to failure.
Figure 3. Dehumanizing language (normalized frequencies of key terms), three-day intervals. Source: authors' data.
Dehumanizing the enemy

Besides displaying the invasion as an existential war to which Russians must respond with patriotic unity, prowar social media users put extra effort into dehumanizing Ukrainians. Dehumanization is a typical tool used by governments at war: it provokes hate while also undermining compassion for the enemy, which makes mobilization easier. We combined the terms used by the state media to dehumanize Ukrainians, such as “Ukrofascists,” “ukrops,” “(neo-)Nazis,” “terrorists,” “fanatics, etc. Figure 3 plots the dynamics for July-August and demonstrates an astonishing volume of dehumanizing material in both traditional and social media. It is clear that language promoting hate against the Ukrainian people is even more visible than the key war justification terms or references to NATO.

To magnify the effects of the dehumanizing labels, the propaganda uses emotionally charged verbs and adverbs: “frenzied carnage” (ostervenelo raspravlialis), “a population stupefied by abominable Banderites” (odurmanennoe gnusnoi banderovshсhinoi naselenie), etc.
This language portrays Ukrainian people as brainwashed, bloodthirsty and fanatical, apparently in an attempt to prevent Russians from expressing compassion for relatives, friends and citizens in Ukraine."
While there is a substantial amount of dehumanizing language on social media, Figure 3 clearly demonstrates an abnormal spike on August 12. It points to coordinated attempts to amplify the anti-Ukrainian narrative via state-controlled accounts or bots. For instance, on August 12-13 16% (2,993 out of 19,220 messages) of the dehumanizing language comes from the nationalist video Who Scares Banderites (Kogo Boyatsya Banderovtsy). On August 13-14, 10% of such language comes from the nationalist video NATO Made Ukraine Its Lackey (NATO sdelalo Ukrainu shesterkoi) produced by the prowar nationalist group Essence of Time.
Figure 4. The Kremlin's talking points language (normalized frequencies of key terms), three-day intervals. Source: authors' data.
Propaganda failures

However, not everything promoted by the propaganda machine to mobilize the nation works. In July 2022, independent media outlet Meduza acquired two temniki (talking points) issued by the Kremlin to coordinate media reporting on the war. They included comparisons of the “SVO” with the Baptism of Rus, justifications of the war with Ukraine as a fight of Russian Orthodoxy against atheists and so on. We used the keywords from the talking points to understand whether they resonated with social media discussions.

As seen in Figure 4, the official media indeed picked up the topics formulated in the Kremlin's temniki at the end of July. However, the pattern on social media suggests that online discussions followed the agenda to a very limited extent. The temniki's language appears at least two times less frequently on social media, possibly indicating that it didn’t resonate with social media users.
Figure 5. Antiwar rhetoric (normalized frequencies of key terms), three-day intervals. Source: authors' data.
In addition, despite the criminalization of public antiwar statements, social media users continue to discuss the war in terms of “Russian invasion,” “occupation of Ukrainian territories,” “annexation of Crimea/Donbas/parts of Ukraine,” “Russian occupation,” “aggression against Ukraine,” etc. (see Figure 5).This suggests state propaganda can’t fully shape antiwar sentiment online. Note how the frequencies of these phrases rise toward the end of summer 2022.

Political turbulence in the offing?

The “partial mobilization” is a pivotal point in the Kremlin's military strategy and definitely affected the public mood in Russia. It put enormous stress on Russians: according to various estimates, up to 700,000 left the country over two weeks to dodge the mobilization, while mass protests erupted across the country. The approval ratings of the president and prime minister, as well as key political institutions (like the Duma), have slid.

Our analysis suggests that prior to the announcement of the mobilization, the Kremlin relied on regime-affiliated nationalist social media users to advocate a general call to arms. Its core elements were the existential threat presented by NATO, the need for patriotic unity and the dehumanization of the Ukrainian nation. Leveraging its control over the traditional media and using its extensive networks of bots, trolls and prowar users, the Kremlin promoted the narrative that later became the foundation for the mobilization.

The key topics and concepts promoted by prowar groups online were related to a mobilization. Attempts to present the war as an “existential” one in which the only possible response for a citizen is to rally behind the leadership and mobilize, as well as the calls for patriotic unity and the dehumanization of the enemy, were intended to justify a mobilization. The online propaganda campaign suggests that the Kremlin has been using social media to maneuver between two challenges: military failures in Ukraine, which necessitated a mobilization, and the failures of TV propaganda to spur enthusiasm for a mobilization. As the mobilization now claims lives, antiwar sentiment is even more widespread online currently, while at least some of the propaganda concepts are failing to gain traction with the public. It remains to be seen whether the cracks in the Kremlin’s narratives about the war and its intrusion into citizens’ lives following Putin’s decree on mobilization will create political turbulence strong enough to affect the Kremlin’s policies.
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