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
(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?