Activists Reach Russians Behind Putin’s Propaganda Wall

Rene has nothing to do with the invasion of Ukraine. The 34-year-old lives more than 1,000 km away in Nuremberg, Germany. He has no family there and he has never been to the country. But when Russia invaded, he wanted to help. So, on the dating app Tinder, he changed his location to Moscow and started talking to war women.

“I had a conversation with a girl who said [the invasion] is just a military operation and the Ukrainians are killing their own people and stuff like that, so I argued with her,” says Rene, who asks not to share his surname because he doesn’t want to. that his clients know of his activism. “I also got reactions like, ‘Thanks for telling us.'”

Ever since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, the Russians have existed behind a propaganda wall that shields them from the details of what is happening on the ground. Russian state media call the invasion a “special military operation”, never a war. Troops are shown distributing aid, not blowing up buildings. According to official pollsters, the Kremlin’s narrative holds. Support for sending troops to Ukraine is high, lingering at around 70%. Although the reliability of these numbers is unclear, the New York Times reported anecdotal evidence that even Russians with Ukrainian parents believe that only military infrastructure is targeted by “precision” strikes and that images showing violence against civilians are false.

But an idea is gaining traction online: if the Russians learned the truth about Ukraine, they could rise up and oust the architect of war, President Vladimir Putin. Over the past week, people have been testing this theory by messaging ordinary Russians via reviews on Tinder and Google Maps, and under state-sponsored posts on Facebook before the platform was blocked. in Russia last week.

Reaching isolated Russians online was a tactic initiated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the night of February 23, when he job a selfie video in Russian. “You are told that this flame [war] will bring freedom to the Ukrainian people, but the Ukrainian people are already free,” he said. Then, at the start of the invasion, an army of volunteer hackers was mobilized in defense of Ukraine. But now even ordinary internet users are finding a role in the war, using social media platforms that the Kremlin has not yet blocked. “Hello Russians,” one woman wrote under a Facebook post by Russian news agency TASS last week. “Since the Kremlin influences all information, we in Germany want to inform you that a terrible war is going on in Ukraine caused by Putin.”

“Reaching Russians in Russia is really, really difficult for anyone because the Russian state maintains such tight control over their media environment,” says Laura Edelson, a computer scientist who studies disinformation at New York University. She says the Russian state has been very effective in creating a common set of beliefs: that the Ukrainian government is full of Nazis who commit wartime atrocities. “What you want to do is eliminate this false narrative,” she says.

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