Disinformation on Telegram: how Russian propaganda works in temporarily occupied territories
June 7, 2024

Disinformation on Telegram: how Russian propaganda works in temporarily occupied territories

“People wanted to vote”, “the sea in Mariupol was infected”, “American combat mosquitoes are destroying the Russian army”, “legends about ‘black transplant specialists’ in Ukraine”, and “active voting in the elections of the head of the Kremlin” – these are just five examples out of thousands of fakes spread on Telegram.

Quick access to information, audiovisual materials, and a huge number of channels are among the threats on Telegram faced by residents of temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine.

Disinformation has become a powerful weapon of hybrid warfare, aimed at dividing society, undermining democratic foundations, and confusing people.

The Kremlin’s narratives, which contain misinformation and manipulate facts, aim to discredit democratic values, honest journalism, and media. Unfortunately, Russian propagandists perform this task perfectly and get into the heads of Ukrainians, Russians, and citizens from other countries, and first of all, Ukrainians residing in the temporarily occupied territories.

These narratives glorify Russia and smear everything related to Ukraine, creating an alternative reality for those under occupation. This article highlights how enemy propaganda works in such conditions, and how people should counteract it.

Destroying connections with Ukraine

At the Kyiv StratCom forum, Vadym Skibitskyi, Deputy Chief of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, said that Russians had installed about 2,000 mobile network towers in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions to spread Russian propaganda content.

“Since 2014, Russia has been using the following military approach in the temporarily occupied territories: the isolation and control of the information space and informational and psychological brainwashing of the population. In the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions, all information flows and software are controlled by [state defence conglomerate] Rostec,” Skibitskyi said.

Since the start of the occupation, Russians have been limiting unbiased information that poses a threat to them. The invaders broke into local media offices in the occupied territories, intimidated journalists and forced them to work for the Kremlin. Almost all local Ukrainian media outlets and journalists refused to work for the enemy.

And this didn’t stop the Kremlin. Russian state-controlled newspapersleaflets, and media emerged in the occupied territories. An alternative reality from the occupiers, in which “all is well”, “everything is going according to plan”, and “people are happy to live in Russia”, migrated to Telegram.

“Since 2022, the role of Telegram channels has increased in importance. In general, a lot of Russian war correspondents, bloggers, and media outlets have switched to Telegram. The messenger is very convenient for Russians, because many public channels and private groups can be created on Telegram. If you look at the largest Telegram channels, you can see a lot of Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns,” says Yelysaveta Tkachenko, a junior analyst at VoxCheck, a Ukrainian fact-checking project.

And they have created not only powerful disinformation campaigns, but also an alternative reality.

“Care” of Russians for Ukrainians in the occupied territories

For a long time, Russia has been simulating the “recovery” of the occupied territories. All reports, of course, are provided on Telegram channels. An administrative services centre is allegedly being built in Melitopol. A railway station is allegedly being repaired in Mariupol. A children’s centre was opened in Berdiansk. And there are hundreds of such news items.

They try to demonstrate the so-called “recovery” of the occupied territories. However, it turns out that the “recovery” was hasty and low-quality.

But they try to keep quiet about this: instead, they show videos and photos full of happiness, admiration, and “recovery”.

“They are trying to create a ‘picture’ of recovery and a good life in Mariupol to hide all the war crimes they have committed and show that they are investing in reconstruction. That is, they are not so interested in Severodonetsk or, for example, Volnovakha,” says Yelysaveta Tkachenko.

But they are trying to create a “picture” of happy residents in all temporarily occupied territories. From time to time, information about the real situation emerges, but then it is lost among misleading narratives.

Encouraging people to take part in Putin’s “elections”

Another component of propaganda is aimed at Russians, people residing in the temporarily occupied territories, and Ukrainians in general. It can be described in a few words – “you can live well in Russia”. To support this narrative, Russians promoted misleading statements during the so-called “presidential elections” and showed people allegedly standing in queues to vote in the occupied territories.

“In fact, these may be people who have never resided in the temporarily occupied territories but were brought specifically for creating this ‘picture’ and showing the large scale of the whole process,” emphasises Yelysaveta Tkachenko.

However, there were reports of human rights violations and repression against those who didn’t want to vote or supported Ukraine, coming from the controlled media space of the temporarily occupied territories.

“In the temporarily occupied territories, the opinion about the so-called democratic nature of these elections is confirmed not by civilians who say that they are happy to live in the territories controlled by the Russian government but rather by foreign observers who say that democratic elections are held in these territories. Although, in fact, these foreign observers are part of the Kremlin’s disinformation, and they have visited Russia more than once. Moreover, they are mouthpieces of the Kremlin abroad and actively spread the Kremlin’s disinformation,” notes Yelysaveta Tkachenko.

For example, a so-called observer from France said that there was “more democracy” in Putin’s “elections” than in his homeland. Meanwhile, more than 50 countries have condemned the so-called elections, and France was among them.

Horror stories about Ukraine

Other fakes that may discourage people residing in the temporarily occupied territories include horror stories about Ukraine. Of course, they are not real but created by Russian propaganda.

According to the analysis of VoxCheck, such narratives being spread recently include a fake on the fact that wives who had turned their husbands in to a territorial recruitment centre received awards from a military commissariat in the Kharkiv region. However, this information is false. The photo features women who were awarded for the organisation of events to honour the memory of Ukraine’s fallen defenders and support their families.

Moreover, there is disinformation claiming that Ukrainians are being caught on the border between Poland and Germany. However, this information is also false. Germany has tightened border controls to combat illicit trafficking and the inflow of illegal migrants.

Recent disinformation stories include a fake claiming that the terrorist attack at the Crocus City Hall in the Moscow region was committed by a Ukrainian citizen. This information is false because there were no Ukrainian citizens among those detained, and at least three of the four attackers were citizens of Tajikistan.

Russian Telegram channels also spread disinformation claiming that the average life expectancy in Ukraine has decreased rapidly and that the Ukrainian authorities are allegedly hiding the main reasons for this – lack of access to healthcare services and mobilisation.

“To shield itself against charges of genocide, Kremlin propagandists often engage in projection of their own crimes onto their victims or even just slinging completely baseless accusations. That is, they accuse Ukraine without evidence of trying to commit genocide against Russian speakers in Ukraine, often using made-up stories. The genocide narrative has been an integral part of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign aiming to justify Russian aggression,” the European Union’s EUvsDisinfo initiative says in an article.   

Russian propagandists are trying to blame Ukraine for everything to disclaim responsibility. “The war against Russia was allegedly waged by the West”, “Ukraine is a puppet state” – they distort history and are trying to brainwash Ukrainians.

“Pro-Kremlin pundits deploy this narrative whenever Ukraine receives military support from its Western partners, or when Russia is losing its hold on temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine. The EU, the US, and many NATO member states have provided Ukraine with military assistance to help Ukraine repel Russia’s unprovoked aggression, but they are not involved in any fighting. The West doesn’t want to destroy Russia. It wants Russia to stop trying to destroy Ukraine,” EUvsDisinfo said.

Nevertheless, there are stories that will never be highlighted by Russian social media. They try to juggle facts and tell a story that nobody supports Ukraine. In fact, there are actually a very large number of countries that support Ukraine during the war. They provide weapons, support Ukraine’s economy, and facilitate its recovery to show that Ukraine is not alone in this war.

A school in Kamianske reopened its doors after being reconstructed with the support of the European Investment Bank. The Ukraine Energy Support Fund has transferred transformers and high-voltage inputs to the Khmelnytskyi region. The European Investment Bank will help Ukraine to repair and rehabilitate more than 11,500 war-damaged apartments. The EU, UNDP, and Japan have donated equipment for debris and municipal waste management in Ukraine.

And Russian propaganda doesn’t tell the stories highlighting the fact that Ukraine has its allies that support it in its fight.

How to get reliable information

In today’s world, disinformation has become a powerful weapon of hybrid warfare, aimed at confusing people.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This quote is attributed to a journalist from Chicago. Its key message is that you should check all the information you get from other people or social media. Don’t trust information if it is excessively emotional or outrageous. You should reflect on the following: what feelings are expected to be aroused by a news item?

You should look for information primarily in official sources of Ukraine. The President of Ukraine, ministries, and other agencies inform about the most important things, in particular on their Telegram channels. However, the interaction between the authorities and citizens is also important.

Telegram plays a significant role in this. In January 2021, this messenger was the most downloaded non-gaming application worldwide. However, you should protect your personal data on Telegram: enable two-factor authentication, limit the number of people who can see your photo and phone number, set auto-delete messages, if your chat is important, and turn off access to your geolocation, contacts, and photos.

“The best way is for officials and agencies to inform about Russian disinformation waves in their official sources, respond to them in time, and warn people residing in the temporarily occupied territories about possible disinformation waves,” says Yelysaveta Tkachenko.

If your family members are residing in temporarily occupied territories, please share this information with them. Take care of yourself, protect your personal data, and double-check any information. Stay in the Ukrainian information space, don’t lose hope, and believe in Ukraine.

Authors: Ivan Mahuriak, Sofiia Troshchuk

Article published in Ukrainian by 24TV.UA


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