Social Media as a Weapon in the Russian/Ukrainian Conflict #53 #cong14

By Ruairi Kavanagh.

A New Kind of Weapon in a New Kind of War: 

Meet Ruslan Semenov, a dentist hard at work in the restive region of Russia’s North Caucasus. Meanwhile 1560 kilometres away in the eastern Ukrainian City of Odessa, meet “Dr Igor Rozovskiy” a doctor in the city’s hospital. During the summer, amidst fighting in the city between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian factions, more than 50 people were killed in a fire after a local Government building was occupied by pro-Russian forces.

This prompted ‘Dr Rozovskiy’ to post the following (unedited and translated from Russian) on his Facebook page:

“Hello. My name is Igor Rosovskiy. I am 39 years old. I live in the city of Odessa. In the course of 15 years I have worked as a first-aid physician. Yesterday, as you know, there was a terrible tragedy in our city, some people killed other people. They killed in a brutal way by burning alive, not in a drunken stupor, not to get their grandmother’s inheritance, but because they share the political views of nationalists. First they brutally beat their victims, then burned them alive. As a doctor, I rushed to help those whom I could save, but the fighters stopped me. They didn’t let me go to the wounded. One rudely pushed me, promising that I and other Jews would suffer a similar fate. I saw a young man I could have saved if I could have taken him to the hospital, but my attempts to persuade were met with a blow to the face and lost glasses. In fifteen years I have seen much, but yesterday I wanted to cry, not from the blows and humiliation, but from my helplessness to do something. In my city such things did not happen even during the worst of Nazi occupation. I wonder why the world is silent.”

But there is no Dr Igor Rozovskiy, in fact his Facebook profile picture, when exposed by Radio Free Europe, showed it to be none other than a picture of Ruslan Semenov, the Dentist from the North Caucasus. Until this was discovered of course, this tragic take of death and barbarism in eastern Ukraine almost perfectly fit the narrative of Nazi, right-win thugs marauding through the eastern region of Ukraine, searching for innocent victims. Mr Semenov had a website for his clinic, the Ust Dzhegmiska Dental Clinic, but the site has since been taken down, soon after this story of ‘what happens when social media propaganda goes wrong’ went across the internet. Also, less surprisingly, the profile of ‘Dr Igor Rosovskiy’ has also vanished from Facebook. 

Social media, just one more propaganda weapon in the increasingly violent, tragic and divisive war in Ukraine, the first conflict on mainland Europe in the 21st Century.

The ‘disinformation’ battleground

Since the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych, following his decision to row back on a treaty which would have seen Kiev’s Government break away from Moscow and move toward a pro-EU path, Ukraine has been in flames. Yanukovych’s move enraged both Moscow and Ukraine’s very sizeable Russian speaking population. He fled in late Spring following massive protests and violence in the capital’s Maidan Square, which became known as the Maidan Movement. The pro-Russian peninsula of Crimea was not so subtly annexed by Russia in April after a ‘referendum’ and following this, other areas of Eastern Ukraine began to agitate for repatriation to the ‘motherland’. The ongoing crisis has seen almost half a million displaced, almost 4,000 dead and nearly 9,000 injured.

It’s also seen a massive campaign of ‘disinformation’ on traditional media and social media that has been widespread in terms of tactics employed, sometimes slapdash in execution but very effective in terms of gaining critical mass. The major platforms in Ukraine are vKontakte, Odnoklassniki and to a lesser extent, Facebook. The first two are the most popular Russian social media platforms with 27 million and 11 million users respectively. In comparison, Facebook has 3.2 million and Twitter only 430,000. That said, these figures are presented by, the most popular Russian website, so the veracity of the figures could be called into question. 

The tactics of the media campaign to discredit and attack the pro-Kiev Government have been spearheaded by often brazen support by mainstream Russian Media. For instance, check out the multiple personalities which Mr Andrei Petkov was given by three Russian new channels on the same day. 

Seek and destroy (any message that is not your message)

In March this year, as Moscow vehemently denied that the unmarked green uniforms that swept into the peninsula were Russian troops, a Colonel of the Irish Defence Forces was on the Crimean border, facing these unmasked combatants, with a mission Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). No sooner, had the below image appeared online, then both the Irish Independent and the Defence Forces Ireland Twitter account were subjected to a considerable increase in comments and tweets, the vast majority of a pro-Russian nature. Indeed the Colonel told me he was called a “fascist” both to his face on the ground near Crimea and there were also online comments of a similar nature as his Irish insignia was mistaken for an Italian flag, hence the vague Mussolini connotations.  

Comment is Free (Actually maybe not)

The Guardian Newspaper earlier this year said that they believed that there was an orchestrated pro-Kremlin campaign by hired ‘trollers’ to comment and agitate on stories related to Ukraine.

The following stories had the following number of comments deleted for reasons of abuse in April this year alone:

The use of disinformation, by both sides, but predominantly Russia should not be seen as anything new, it’s simply another weapon in the age old propaganda war. The overtness and aggression of it on social media platforms, which traditionally in their relatively short life spans are seen as soft-power mediums, is what makes it stand out and take its place as another weapon in the age of hybrid warfare. Combining these elements with the considerable threat of Russian ‘hard’ power, in addition to the use of foreign fighters, non-government actors and the civilian population itself, Europe has been introduced to a very ‘modern’ war.   

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie