Increasingly, Twitter is used to spread Russia’s propaganda
Throughout history, propaganda has been a weapon used against enemy forces as part of psychological wars, or “psywar”. But it was also used extensively to influence public opinion in neutral countries, while domestic propaganda was vital in any war effort.
Earlier efforts may have included traditional media such as newspapers and radio, but the Psywar efforts have gone online.
A new study published this month by RAND Corporation looked at the use of Twitter and social media influencers in the information war between Russia and Ukraine. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian politicians have tried to restore Russian influence over the post-Soviet countries. and since the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014, Moscow has stepped up its efforts to influence Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian populations who speak the Russian language or are of Russian descent could be attractive targets for Russian propaganda. While in the past this may have included the newspapers and radio mentioned above, Twitter is increasingly being used to spread Russian propaganda.
RAND Corporation’s 2018 research analyzing Russian-language Twitter feeds from Eastern Europe even found two large and influential communities: one group of seemingly “pro-Ukrainian activists” who oppose Russian influence and support Ukrainian democracy, and another A group of apparently “pro-Russia” activists who distribute Russian social media content and oppose an independent Ukraine.
Through a campaign with Twitter advertising, the researchers successfully recruited 146 pro-Ukrainian activists, 66 pro-Russian activists and 1,103 respondents from the general population. The aim of this survey was to find out to what extent pro-Ukrainian activists used Twitter and other social media platforms to counter Russian influence in the region.
The new propaganda tool: influencer
The use of influencers could increase as part of psywar efforts, but it is social media that could transform the way such efforts are conducted.
“Social media is the place to be when you’re driving important political or national security goals,” said Todd C. Helmus, chief behavioral scientist at RAND Corporation.
“Influencer-driven approaches to strategic communication campaigns in the US are becoming more common,” said Helmus. “The term used often here is techcamp. It refers to training for members of civil society to help them communicate more effectively on social media.”
Such efforts have already been used to counter Moscow’s psywar efforts.
“In Latvia, for example, the US embassy held a tech camp training event to train select journalists who live in regions suffering from Russian propaganda,” added Helmus. “Efforts are also being made in this region to identify and empower ‘social media influencers’ who speak Russian but have a ‘pan-European’ perspective. These efforts are particularly common in campaigns against violent extremism. We recently had one US-funded campaign evaluated in the Philippines who used training and ongoing mentoring to help civil society fight online extremism. “
Factors influencing the spread of influence and information / misinformation
The concept of influence as a political tool is not new, but its importance will increase as more people around the world turn to the internet for information.
“We should definitely expect this type of use,” said Helmus. “The vast majority of people get their information from friends and connect with friends through the internet and social media, so it is important that these platforms communicate the US and allied efforts to combat extremism and foreign disinformation. “
A key factor here is “trust”, and here the influence can be even stronger – similar to a force multiplier.
“A US government tweet will not carry the weight of a message from a family member or friend. Even brands know that an online referral from a friend carries more weight than an advertisement,” noted Helmus. “As such, influencer or brand ambassador strategies are critical to empowering authentic local voices on key issues. However, I want to say that this has to be done in an authentic and credible way in order for it to be done right.”
In a psywar campaign, this could mean putting the effort into training local influencers in a transparent way.
“Influencers need to want to talk about these topics on social media. They need to be free to criticize the government and its policies. They shouldn’t get paid to post certain content unless they’re naturally transparent about that payment “she added Helmus. “The government’s only job is to build relationships with the influencer and provide the training and support they need.”