Russia’s war against Ukraine: the bot offensive flanking the invasion

14 Sept 2023

Bots played a substantial role in the dissemination of pro-Russian propaganda and specifically targeted countries that abstained from the UN resolution condemning the attack.

Information war in the digital space: Bots play a significant role in the dissemination of Pro-Kremlin propaganda. | © Alexei Druzhinin/IMAGO/SNA, adobestock; Collage: LMU

Online propaganda has become an important tool of modern warfare. When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the move was accompanied by an information war in the digital space. In a large-scale empirical study, a team led by Professor Stefan Feuerriegel, Head of the Institute of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Management at LMU, investigated the dissemination of pro-Russian propaganda on the platform X (formerly Twitter). The results show that bots play a significant role in the dissemination and proliferation of propaganda posts and that specific countries are targeted.

In earlier conflicts, Russia had already engaged in targeted social media campaigns to influence public opinion and amplify political polarization. “Indications that this was also the case during the invasion of Ukraine were largely of an anecdotal nature before now,” says LMU researcher Stefan Feuerriegel. “There has been a lack of broad-scale empirical studies to date. We have now closed this gap.” To this end, the researchers analyzed a total of 349,455 Twitter posts with pro-Russian content, such as messages circulating under the hashtag #istandwithrussia. The messages studied were posted between February and July 2022. Pro-Russian messages received some 251,000 retweets, the analyses revealed, reaching around 14.4 million users. These figures highlight the viral spread of these posts.

Furthermore, the researchers demonstrated that bots played a disproportionately large role and massively amplified the dissemination and proliferation of pro-Russian messages. Using self-learning software tools, the researchers determined that around 20 percent of the disseminators of such messages overall were bots. The bots operated in strongly interconnected retweet networks and sought to boost the visibility of the messages, leading to the proliferation of content that would otherwise not have gone viral.

A peak on the day of the General Assembly

Conspicuously, the volume of pro-Russian messages peaked on the day on which the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution ES-11/2, condemning the invasion of Ukraine. Analyses of the location of the bots revealed that they were particularly active in countries that abstained from voting on UN Resolution ES-11/1 on 2 March 2022. These included nations such as India, South Africa, and Pakistan. The density of pro-Russian activity on Twitter was notably high in these countries on this day. By the following day, this exceptional regional distribution had disappeared, although pro-Russia propaganda continued to achieve peak levels on Twitter on this day.

From their results, the researchers conclude that pro-Russian bots specifically targeted these countries to undermine the support for sanctions against Russia and weaken solidarity with Ukraine. It was conspicuous, observed the authors, that many bots spreading pro-Russian messages were created shortly before the UN vote, which suggests deliberate and planned manipulation of public opinion on Twitter.

“Overall, our findings point to a large-scale Russian propaganda campaign on social media and illustrate the new threats for society this poses. Our results also indicate that the suppression of bots could be an effective strategy for curbing such campaigns,” says Dominique Geissler, doctoral researcher at Feuerriegel’s institute and lead author of the study.

Dominique Geissler, Dominik Bär, Nicolas Pröllochs, and Stefan Feuerriegel: Russian propaganda on social media during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. EPJ Data Science 2023

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