The United States and Ukraine Group Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble

WASHINGTON – Using a combination of high technology and Cold War tactics, Ukrainian activists and Western organizations have begun to infiltrate propaganda balloons in Russia, spreading information about the Ukraine war among Russian citizens to sow suspicions about the Kremlin’s account.

These efforts come at a particularly urgent time: Moscow appears to be preparing for a new offensive in eastern Ukraine that could prove bloody brutality for both sides, while posting Reports of atrocities further highlight the brutality of the Kremlin’s tactics.

As Russia presented a fantastic version of the war, Ukrainian activists sent messages emphasizing government corruption and incompetence in an attempt to undermine trust in the Kremlin.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, an independent American-funded news organization founded decades ago, is trying to push its broadcasts deeper into Russia. Its Russian-language articles are published on copies of its websites called “mirrors,” which Russian censors seek in a high-stakes game. Audience numbers increased during the war despite the censorship.

American organizations are also promoting the use of software that allows Russian citizens to jump through a primitive firewall erected by the Kremlin to control internet access.

These efforts face high hurdles as the Kremlin tightens its grip on journalists and the internet, passing laws forcing shutting down independent media outlets, like Echo of Moscow. President Vladimir V. Putin is doing all he can to keep the Russians in the dark about Europe’s largest land war since 1945, with casualties largely unreported in the media. Russian pine.

The Russian government has been particularly focused on limiting reports of war casualties. In its most recent official announcement, at the end of March, Russia reported 1,351 soldiers diedwhile the latest US intelligence estimates, shared with Congress in recent days, put the number between 4,000 and 5,000.

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

After the war began in February, Putin began building an internet firewall similar to China’s to block some Russian and Western news sites and social media. Russians can still access Google and YouTube, but many Western news sources are labeled as “foreign agents”.

An authoritarian government does not have to maintain a perfect firewall to keep its public in a propaganda bubble. Many Russians get their news from state-run television and radio stations. And some Russian analysts argue that most citizens support the government for reasons beyond their news diet and want to believe in the Kremlin line.

US intelligence officials say that is why pushing information into Russia, and reaching the broadest segments of the population, is so difficult.

However, American and European officials say that efforts by outsiders to bring information about the war to the Russians are important.

For now, Mr. Putin and the invasion are still popular in Russia, according to polls, although analysts warn that such measures of Russia’s attitude are unreliable, mainly because many people are afraid to make anti-war statements. Police was arrested thousands of protesters, and many self-censor their comments about Ukraine.

There are early signs that efforts to tear down the propaganda wall may be working, who, as well as other security officials, have told a senior Western intelligence official. on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential or sensitive government assessments.

And an American data analytics company, FilterLabs.AI, has Russian sentiment tracker on internet message boards and other online forums, said they had measured the growing Russian anxiety about the draft and war casualties. Putin recently signed a decree ordering about 134,500 soldiers to conscript, even though the Defense Ministry said they would not go to Ukraine.

“We may be at a turning point in Russian sentiment towards the initial invasion of Ukraine, as Russia attempted to annex the entire country,” said Jonathan D. Teubner, chief executive officer of FilterLabs. .

In a way, the email to this 18-year-old Russian girl is very subtle. It does not directly address the invasion of Ukraine or the allegations of war crimes against Russian soldiers.

Instead, it talks about their military’s mistreatment of Russian soldiers and claims that the Russian government is deceiving its conscripts and, importantly, providing inadequate food and equipment to its soldiers. country.

Over the past two weeks, a group of Ukrainian activists, government officials and think tanks, known as the Information Strategy Council of Ukraine, have emailed and messaged 15 million people on social media. Russian men of military age, 18 to 27. post about older Russians, using historical references to motivate them to discuss government-approved news reports .

“The basic problem is that when you want to solve the propaganda problem, you can’t just say what you’re getting on TV is not true; Sophia Hnizdovska, an executive director at the council, said. “We’re trying to slowly, through our narratives, get people to question official sources.”

The most successful articles by Ukrainian activists build on this theme, focusing on the incompetence and corruption of Russian military leaders, group members say.

An image circulated by the group depicts senior Russian military leaders, including Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, with his head full of question marks, and General Valery Gerasimov, the senior military leader, with his head. The top is an image of a superyacht. .

According to activists, Russians tend to dismiss messages highlighting Russian war crimes as American propaganda, and photographs of Russian casualties risk inciting anger towards the Russians. Ukraine, rather than the Kremlin.

Mr Teubner’s company is trying to measure the success of Ukrainians – and in recent days has been monitoring what appears to be increasing negative sentiment across Russia over a draft. Hnizdovska said that if the Ukrainians were able to cast enough doubt on the integrity of the Russian government, there would be more Russians seeking information from the Western-supported Russian-language news media.

During the Cold War, the United States government, and especially the CIAhelped establish and fund independent media organizations with a mission to penetrate the Iron Curtain with fact-based news.

With the invasion of Ukraine, organizations are once again operating with a sense of urgency as they try to get accurate information inside an authoritarian state.

News organizations are using both old and 21st century tactics, creating sophisticated radio broadcasts and digital information campaigns.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, main private, independent news organization in an area with US government funding, is war journalism production from reporters on the front lines in Ukraine and working quietly in Russia.

Commonly known as RFE/RL, this group has a Russian-language news site and a 24-hour Russian-language television network, Current timeas well as sites aimed at a regional audience in multiple languages, including Tatar, Chechnya, and Belarusian.

Like several other US-based news organizations and social media companies, its websites were blocked in Russia starting late February. And it suspend its main activity in Russia last month.

RFE/RL has opened offices in Lithuania and Latvia as a new base for reporting on Russia. The group also has a medium radio transmitter in Lithuania to send broadcasts to Russia that can be received on AM frequencies. Officials said they hope to extend the strength of the signal.

The team uses Telegram, a chat app, to disseminate some of its reports and submit the web addresses of their new “mirror” pages.

A Washington-based sister organization that also receives funding from the US government, the Open Technology Foundation, sets up mirror sites and continuously creates new ones to stay ahead of the censors. of the Russian government one step.

“Amid the new censorship landscape, the cloning program has grown rapidly, and Russian censors are proving to be a very active adversary,” said Nat Kretchun, senior vice president of the organization in charge of the program. extreme,” said Nat Kretchun, the organization’s senior vice president for programs. “Our partners are setting up a more automated system where once Russian censors block them, new websites are set up.”

The technology group arranged for some Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty websites to be hosted by Tor, a digital communications network that helps protect ordinary internet users from surveillance. And it finances companies and teams that develop virtual private network applications, software known as VPNs, that help citizens bypass internet firewalls. Smart TV owners in Russia can also download the app for Current Time.

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

“We are seeing a higher audience for Russians in the country and Russians outside,” said Jamie Fly, president and chief executive officer of RFE/RL. “The challenge is: Can we sustain that over time? Does the profit fade? ”

In mid-March, Russian news agencies began publishing reports that Russian casualties in Ukraine were low, in contrast to Western estimates that were much higher. Those reports come at a time when concern about the country’s war dead is starting to grow on local internet message boards – and as soldiers’ coffins are captured, according to an analysis by FilterLabs. head back home.

Stories about Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and Russian prisoners of war are among the most popular across platforms, said Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy for the news organization. RFE/RL platform. Ukrainian news agency reporters, who learned the identities of Russians killed or taken prisoner, passed that information on to colleagues in Russia, who then attempted to locate and interview them. consult families.

Software developed by FilterLabs has begun to track changes in public sentiment and changes in the way Russian news agencies talk about wartime casualties. Some skeptics question this type of artificial intelligence-based sentiment analysis, and FilterLabs admits that the technology has its limits.

But the group said broad trends it identified as credible and showed concern about the draft was growing, as message board discussions seemed to suggest that Russians were increasingly worried that Their children will have to join the army to fight in Ukraine, Mr. Teubner said.

“The general sentiment when it comes to the draft is trending very negative on popular forums,” he said. “This shows us what is one of the biggest holes for those trying to maintain support for the war in the long run.”

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