In 2022, Russian disinformation again showed the threat it poses to both Ukrainian society and other European countries. And because of the lack of content filtering mechanisms and the provision of complete anonymity of informants, Telegram has become one of the key platforms for conducting Russian information influence campaigns. Active participation in this was ensured not only by Russian Telegram channels — resources that position themselves as those aimed at informing the audience of the Russian Federation. We are also talking about the so-called "Ukrainian channels" - pro-Russian resources that mimic independent Ukrainian media and create content specifically for the Ukrainian audience. In 2022, the latter became one of the most actively used tools by Russia in the information war.
In this study, VoxCheck presents the results of its monitoring of Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels conducted between February 24 and November 15, 2022. In it, we show how synchronized and coordinated the information campaigns carried out by these resources were (spread in waves at equal time intervals), which messages of Kremlin propaganda they promoted most intensively, and also what techniques they used for this. This study also analyzes how these narratives and techniques changed over time during the entire period of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as shows similarities and differences in the methods of campaigning by Russian and pro-Russian resources.
The study was carried out with the support of Democracy Reporting International with the assistance of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The first stage of the research was the creation of a list of Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels. By Russian Telegram channels, we mean channels that have been proven to be administered by users from Russia or whose authors directly state that they run a Russian channel and create content mainly for a Russian audience.
By pro-Russian channels, we mean pseudo-Ukrainian channels whose authors create content for Ukrainian users and try to create the impression that they are independent media. In fact, as we will show below, these channels participate in Russian disinformation campaigns, and often their work is directly administered by Russian representatives. Thus, in July 2022, Ukrainian state agencies (SSU, Ministry of Defense, Center for Countering Disinformation under the NSDC, etc.) published a list of telegram channels in which employees of the Russian special services are involved. Some of the channels from this list were monitored by us.
The monitoring period is from February 24 to November 15, 2022. A total of 41 Russian and 18 pro-Russian channels were monitored. When selecting channels, the number of subscribers and the level of their recognition within the audience were taken into account. Cases of disinformation were found in these channels using a manual keyword search. To determine whether a particular message in a Telegram channel is indeed an example of disinformation, we checked its content using only open sources.
In order to classify all the cases of disinformation we found, we grouped the fakes by a key common message into narratives. Different fakes are examples of the same disinformation narrative when they convey the same message, whether overtly or covertly, aimed at influencing public opinion by distorting the facts.
As part of the monitoring, we managed to single out 19 disinformation narratives, each of which was spread in both Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels. The similarity of these narratives is the first sign of a connection between Russian and pro-Russian channels. The second sign is the synchronization of disinformation waves at certain time intervals.
In each of the sections, we describe the key messages promoted within each narrative (sub-narrative), determine the time periods of the most active promotion of these messages, provide a comparative description of how each of the narratives was promoted by Russian and pro-Russian channels, and also analyze the connections between different narratives.
Both Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels used this narrative in war propaganda: they called the Ukrainian military "Nazis" in the course of describing the fighting in order to discredit and demonize the enemy in the eyes of the audience.
In order to prove the massiveness of the movement of supporters of neo-Nazism in Ukraine, Russian channels produced numerous photo fakes with Nazi symbols. Elements with the symbols of the Third Reich were allegedly found at the abandoned bases of the "Azov" regiment, were found in the form of tattoos on captured soldiers, were noticed in photos of representatives of the higher political and military command of Ukraine, etc.
Russian and pro-Russian resources promoted the messages that the West ignores the problem of Nazism or neo-Nazism in Ukraine or supports and finances this "regime" in general. Russian telegram channels tried to discredit Western aid to Ukraine: they wrote that by financing the supply of weapons to Ukrainian "military formations", Europe was not fighting Nazism but sponsoring nationalist battalions. For example, after Russian troops destroyed the metallurgical plant "Azovstal" and Mariupol itself, propagandists wrote that the "collective West" was to blame for this because it bred "the corrosion of Nazism" in the city.
Moreover, Russian Telegram channels emphasized the so-called "close connection" between Western (most often American) and Ukrainian "neo-Nazis". For example, it was written that the well-known American neo-Nazi Kent McLellan could be blocked by the soldiers of the "Azov" regiment in Mariupol.
One of the common techniques for both Russian and pro-Russian channels is to refer to international organizations that allegedly recognized the problem of neo-Nazism in Ukraine. The channels spread fakes about " UN reports", which allegedly documented many movements with Nazi ideology in Ukraine for years.
It is noteworthy that the term "Nazis" was used with sharply negative connotations to enhance the emotional effect, throwing in fakes about "murders and torture of civilians" and other war crimes that Russia tried to attribute to the Ukrainian army. The term was also used to justify strikes on civilian infrastructure: in many cases, propagandists argued that they were targeting "Nazi bases" located in civilian buildings.
This narrative is closely related to Russian historical myths about nationalist organizations in Ukraine, as well as the propaganda theory about the West's control over Ukraine: they say that the West either ignores the problem of "Nazism in Ukraine" or supports Ukrainian neo-Nazis.
This narrative was shared mostly in the early days of a full-scale invasion, and as time went on, it began to be mentioned less and less.
With each month, the reasoning behind the start of a large-scale war changed: in February, the official reason for the invasion was called " demilitarization and denazification", as well as " the threat to Russia from NATO". Later, another fake was added to this version: Ukraine was allegedly trying to make a nuclear bomb. The channels "confirmed" this thesis with the alleged statement of Volodymyr Zelenskyi at the Munich conference in 2022.
In March, Telegram channels, referring to the words of the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Mykola Patrushev, began to talk about " biolaboratories on the territory of Ukraine, which posed a threat to Russia." Later, posts appeared in the media as if Ukraine was supposed to attack Crimea and Donbas itself, but Russia just got ahead of it. In addition, to convince their own citizens of the need to start an invasion of a neighboring state, Russian telegram channels talked about the " oppression of Russian speakers" who needed to be "protected."
Most often, these theses were announced by Russian officials, after which they were quoted by the Russian mass media ("RT in Russian", "TASS", "RIA Novosti"). While analysts and war correspondents rarely mentioned (or did not mention at all) biolaboratories and the nuclear bomb. They justified the reason for the invasion by "protecting the so-called "LPR/DPR".
There is no unanimity in pro-Russian Telegram channels. Some media openly called the Russians the occupiers, others, such as "Montyan", "Ukraina.ru" and "Open Ukraine 37#" talk about " genocide in Donbas", hatred for everything Russian in Ukraine, and "compulsion for peace", which “Russia was forced to start". These telegram channels also spread myths about nuclear bomb and biolaboratories.
In pro-Russian Telegram channels, we recorded significantly fewer cases of justifications for Russian aggression.
This narrative is described using expressions with a positive connotation for Russia. Posts that prove the "justice" of Russia's policy receive huge support among users and are accompanied by positive emotions.
The narrative about the justification of aggression is directly related to historical fakes (narrative #19), propaganda about Nazism (narrative #1), and Western control over Ukraine (narrative #12) and often uses cases from the mentioned narratives to justify a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
To discredit or ridicule the authorities, both pro-Russian and Russian channels use derogatory words, thus reducing the seriousness of the perception of politicians and creating a negative image of Ukraine: "
drug addict", "
We found the largest number of cases of discrediting the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyi. You can also notice fakes about other people: Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valery Zaluzhny, Mayor of Kyiv Vitaliy Klychko, Secretary of the NSDC Oleksii Danilov, Ambassador of Ukraine to Germany Andrii Melnyk. Sometimes the authors of the channels do not indicate specific persons but discredit the government in general, calling it the " Kyiv regime of clowns and drug addicts".
At the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, a fake about the escape of Volodymyr Zelenskyi from Kyiv turned out to be popular. Russian and pro-Russian channels reported that the president had evacuated to Lviv or to Poland in general. After February-March 2022, propagandists shifted the emphasis from Zelensky's evacuation to the fact that he is "afraid to leave his bunker" and records almost all video messages using computer graphics. Even in October 2022, when there was already enough evidence of the president's stay in the capital, fakes about the use of chroma key during presidential speeches were spread.
Also, in the posts, they constantly try to present the statements of the Ukrainian authorities about the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the European and Euro-Atlantic development course of Ukraine as inadequate, and any attempts to protect the national interests of Ukraine as useless.
In addition, the channels claimed that there is a serious conflict within the ruling elite of Ukraine: between Zelenskyi and Zaluzhnyi, between Zelenskyi and Klitschko, between various representatives of the President's Office, etc. From this, the authors conclude that Ukrainian politics resembles a " jar of spiders".
We also recorded attempts to oppose the representatives of the authorities to the Ukrainian people: they say that while the people are suffering from the consequences of the war, the powerful are enriching themselves and killing the lives of both civilians and the military, who are only " expendable material" for them.
Despite similar messages, there are several differences between Russian and pro-Russian channels. First, some anonymous pro-Russian channels (" Resident", " Legitymnyi") pretend to have access to insider information about representatives of the Ukrainian government. Therefore, they not only discredit the government but also claim that they have valid grounds for criticizing it. Secondly, the emotionality of the posts differs: if the author of the Telegram channel had a personal conflict with the Ukrainian authorities, such as Anatolii Sharii, who tried to create a pro-Russian party in Ukraine, then the posts in such a channel will probably be more emotionally colored.
When describing the actions or statements of representatives of the Ukrainian authorities in the channels, negative emotions prevail: hatred, contempt for Ukrainian politicians, ridicule, and evil satire.
The discrediting of politicians overlaps with the spread of fakes about the West's control over Ukraine (narrative #12) and Nazi ideology (narrative #1): in the channels, the Ukrainian authorities are often called puppets of the West or supporters of Nazism.
Manipulative claims of
total humanitarian aid theft, counterfeiting, and over-the-counter sales circulated in the pro-Russian and pro-Russian media at the start of the full-scale invasion.
Cases of "selling humanitarian women" in supermarkets became the most widespread. Telegram channels wrote that "humanitarian" Polish canned goods were sold in Odesa, Kharkiv, and Kramatorsk and sometimes even expired. As a rule, products were sold in the "ATB" network.
If humanitarian aid was not found on the shelves of stores, then it settled in warehouses in Western Ukraine, in particular in Lviv, and then, allegedly, was resold on the Internet. Local volunteers allegedly earned millions while they were "covered" by the Office of the President.
Theses about embezzlement of aid are spread using words with a negative connotation, and authors and users of Telegram channels express dissatisfaction with the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.
Russian and pro-Russian media used the cases of the "stealing" of the humanitarian woman as a basis for spreading other narratives. In particular, the ZeRada telegram channel wrote about the mass dissatisfaction of the population with the authorities due to the situation with humanitarian aid. Also, this narrative intersects with the narrative about the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine (narrative #5) — the humanitarian situation in the channels is directly linked to the alleged massive embezzlement of aid.
Theses about the stealing of aid are spread using words with a negative connotation, and authors and users of Telegram channels express dissatisfaction with the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.
At the beginning of March, the vast majority of Russian Telegram channels
claimed that the Armed Forces of Ukraine were deliberately
undermining critical infrastructure on the territory of Donbas in order to create a humanitarian catastrophe. Pro-Russian channels
intimidated Ukrainians by saying that the authorities were not evacuating the population and that a humanitarian disaster was growing in Ukraine.
In particular, pro-Russian channels spread manipulations as if chaos awaits Ukraine. We also found cases with statements that the longer the war lasts, the more refugees there will be. As a result, Ukraine will experience an economic and humanitarian crisis.
In addition, Russian channels write that it was the top leadership of Ukraine that provoked the humanitarian crisis. The reports add that Russia will come and allegedly "fix everything." These messages were distributed by several Russian Telegram channels at once.
We have noticed that disinformation about the humanitarian crisis is spreading in waves. As soon as Russian channels spread the news about the humanitarian "catastrophe", similar information was immediately published by pro-Russian channels.
Also, in the publications of pro-Russian telegram channels, it is said that foreign countries can help overcome the humanitarian "catastrophe". For example, the pro-Russian Telegram channel "ZeRada" in a message appeals to people's deputies of Ukraine with an appeal that Ukraine should ask for help from the Red Cross. Allegedly, only the Red Cross organization can save Ukraine from a humanitarian disaster.
Also, in April 2022, pro-Russian Telegram channels intimidated Ukrainians with hunger. They said that the top leadership of Ukraine would sell the 2022 harvest, which would cause a humanitarian disaster in Ukraine in the fall and winter of 2022 and famine the following year. In addition, pro-Russian channels claim that the healthcare crisis in Ukraine is close to a "catastrophe". However, such messages do not contain any reference to the sources of information.
Pro-Russian Telegram channels were most active in spreading disinformation in the first months of the large-scale invasion. In contrast, Russian channels are more active in publishing fake news every month. Russian channels often make informational throws after the crimes of the Russian Federation, for example, after the Russian shelling in October 2022, they distributed several videos of alleged "mass panic" among Ukrainians.
The absolute majority of cases in this narrative were distributed with a negative connotation. The negativity, of course, was directed against representatives of the Ukrainian state.
The humanitarian catastrophe is associated with narratives #4 and 6 (theft of humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Ukrainian cities by Russia) — according to the fake authors, Russia seeks to "save" Ukrainians from the disaster, and any actions of the Ukrainian authorities, on the contrary, prevent this.
Since the beginning of March, Russian channels have reported that life is gradually improving in cities under Russian occupation. Unlike Russian channels, pro-Russian Telegram channels began to spread fakes about the reconstruction of Ukrainian occupied cities somewhat later, starting in July.
Propagandists emphasized the fact that the Russian Federation actively provides social assistance to the civilian population: it distributes medicines, provides medical assistance, and begins paying pensions. Russian channels also manipulated a lot about the fact that the Russian authorities are building new infrastructure. In the publications, it was said that the Ukrainian side is " erasing" its own cities from the face of the earth while Russia, on the contrary, is rebuilding them. According to propagandists, the Russian Federation is building new roads, hospitals, kindergartens, schools, etc. Also, Russian Telegram channels tried to prove that Russia supplies Ukrainian cities with its gas and provides water supply to the occupied territories.
Much attention was paid to the destroyed Mariupol. Telegram channels claimed that the Russian Federation was actively building new neighborhoods there and providing housing to the residents of Mariupol.
In order to increase the value of their own "achievements", the propagandists made an analogy with the authorities of Ukraine, claiming that the Ukrainians did not build anything during all these years but only " laundered funds".
Kremlin channels sometimes tried to link news about rebuilding and improving life to certain events. For example, in late August and early September, before the start of the school year, propagandists spread more messages about the construction of new schools in the occupied territories. Allegedly, now children can get quality knowledge in comfortable conditions.
We noticed that messages about the so-called reconstruction of Ukraine were spread by pro-Russian channels in much smaller numbers than Russian channels. Pro-Russian channels often made reposts of messages written by Russian channels.
This disinformation narrative is closely intertwined with another — fakes that the Ukrainian government and army are committing war crimes in Ukraine. Therefore, most of the messages had a strongly negative connotation in order to cause a strong emotional reaction in the audience.
Reports of alleged arms sales from Western partners spread in waves and appeared almost simultaneously on both Russian and pro-Russian channels.
The first publications appeared back in February-March before the mass fabrication of so-called "proofs" of resale began. Back on February 28, "RT in Russian", with reference to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, mentioned for the first time that the weapons could end up on the "black market". However, then the emphasis was on the fact that this is a possible consequence of giving out weapons to people to defend their territories and not reselling supplies from Western partners. Already in March, " SOLOVIEV" and " Zа (V)Побѣду" wrote specifically about Western weapons on the "black market".
We recorded the next wave of such messages in April. On March 20, the Russian channel “Kremlin Whisperer” wrote about the resale of weapons provided to Ukraine by partners on the black market. And after a few days, these messages were picked up by other Russian and pro-Russian channels, for example, " Politika Strany" and " Legitymnyi". Russian and pro-Russian channels spread these fakes in sync throughout the following months, citing the same sources and "investigations."
Among the pro-Russian channels, "Legitimnyi", "Ukraina.ru" and "Resident" wrote the most on this topic. "Ukraina.ru" mostly reposts the posts of Russian channels or refers to them as a source of information. "Legitimnyi" and "Resident" add more details to such reports, naming those allegedly involved in arms sales, and also traditionally add so-called "insights" from their own unnamed sources in the authorities.
Among Russian channels, "Svodky opolcheniia Novorossii", "SOLOVIEV" and "RT in Russian" wrote the most about the sale of weapons. These channels wrote about alleged "evidence" of weapons sales, while Russian military correspondents and analysts mostly did not mention any specific cases but wrote about the resale of weapons as a fact.
Fakes about Ukrainians reselling weapons on the "black market" had a rather neutral connotation. The purpose of this narrative was to create an impression of Ukraine as an unreliable partner that cannot ensure the intended use of aid and resources. And that is why it seems that it is not worth allocating weapons or other aid to Ukraine.
These messages were also used to discredit the Ukrainian authorities (as corrupt and unable to ensure compliance with obligations) and the military (it was stated that the ads for the sale of weapons were published by military personnel).
Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels tried to convince that after the sanctions introduced against Russia for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a "record-breaking crisis since the Second World War"
began in the countries of Europe and the world. This is primarily about the increase in prices for energy resources, as well as the drop in economic indicators. Disinformers point out that the reason for all this is the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the EU under
The key goal of the narrative is to show that the crisis was caused by the actions of the West, so the EU and the US are responsible for the "reckless sanctions".
We recorded the most reports of so-called "mass protests against anti-Russian sanctions" in European cities. They point out that Europeans are "not ready to make sacrifices" - in the form of fuel and food prices or cold apartments — for the sake of "Kyiv authorities and Washington's ambitions." And that is why they take to the streets to express their disagreement with the actions of their governments. Telegram channels reported mass protests against the sanctions in Berlin, Magdeburg, Paris, Rome, Naples, Prague, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and other cities.
The second largest sub-narrative consists of reporting on the huge number of large and small businesses closing in Europe due to energy prices. In addition to intimidation that there will soon be an "industrial wasteland" in place of the EU, disinformers press on the emotions of readers, telling stories about the closure of certain businesses that have survived 4 centuries, but not anti-Russian sanctions.
Another big sub-narrative is formed from messages about how entire countries and their populations are now forced to austerity. Periodically, disinformers threw in fakes, as if Europeans were already choosing between buying food for their children or paying their heating bills. And they were especially happy with the news about how Poland is saving money on street lighting.
One message is constantly repeated in Russian telegram channels: sanctions are much more harmful to the EU than to Russia. Here, Russian propaganda uses one of its key methods: it tries to sow distrust among the population of European countries both in their governments and in the decision-making center — Brussels. Propagandists constantly point out that the European Union "sneezes on its own citizens", which is why it resorts to "suicidal sanctions" that put ordinary Europeans at risk of total poverty. The wording as if the anti-Russian sanctions are directed "only against half a billion EU citizens and millions of residents of the rest of Europe" or "the West has shot itself in the foot" is repeatedly mentioned.
In addition, disinformers seek to create the impression that Europeans are unhappy with the fact that their governments are helping Ukraine. They write that Western countries think much more about Ukrainians than about their own citizens. The result of this is an energy crisis, rising inflation, popular dissatisfaction, and a drop in the ratings of politicians who support Ukraine.
As we can see, the connotations of the narrative are rather negative, because they are designed to cause dissatisfaction among European citizens and create a fake appearance of protest moods in the West.
This narrative was not very popular at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, but the longer the war drags on, the more firmly the claim that Ukraine is a
"terrorist state" is entrenched in the Russian agenda. Disinformers write that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are firing at the civilian population in the
occupied territory and in Russia, so it is impossible to negotiate with Ukraine.
Russian Telegram channels publish similar information, using the words " militants", " Banderivites", and " terrorists", and in the media, Ukraine is compared to the terrorist organization "Al-Qaeda". Reports of "fire on civilians" concerned not only Russian territories, the Armed Forces of Ukraine were also accused of attacks on the population of temporarily occupied territories, stressing that "they don't even spare their own people."
This narrative is popular among Russian news Telegram channels, but we recorded significantly fewer mentions of this thesis in pro-Russian Telegram channels. The stories about "shelling of civilians and terror of the Armed Forces of Ukraine" were intended to incite the population to fight against Ukraine.
Most often, pro-Russian channels publish news about shelling without specifying who is behind it. Yes, they write "fired", "there was a missile strike", etc. However, several pro-Russian Telegram channels spread false information about the shelling of the civilian population, citing the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. During the defense of the city of Bucha on February 28, they blamed the AFU, not Russia, for the deaths of civilians.
In addition, pro-Russian Telegram channels wrote that Zelenskyi is ready to do anything to keep the seat, which is why he gives orders to shell residential buildings. In this way, the media tried to sow fear, and panic and reduce the level of trust in the authorities.
Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels spread information almost synchronously, often the channels referred to each other.
"Terrorism in Ukraine" was expectedly perceived in Telegram channels with a negative connotation. Reports of "terrorist attacks" in Ukraine were accompanied by indignation and expressions of hatred on the part of the audience of the channels.
This narrative, on the one hand, is related to narrative #10 "Russia does not commit war crimes in Ukraine", since it refers to alleged war crimes of Ukraine, and on the other hand, to narrative #1 "Nazism in Ukraine", since terrorism and Nazism for Russian channels is synonymous with the political regime in Ukraine. In addition, in the context of terrorism, the posts manage to discredit representatives of the Ukrainian authorities (narrative No. 3).
The vast majority of fakes relate to the most massive and well-known crimes of the Russian Federation, which it committed in the period from February 24, 2022: the bombing of the
maternity hospital and the
drama theater in Mariupol (March), the massacre in
Bucha and the shelling of the railway station in
Kramatorsk (April), the shelling of the shopping center in
Kremenchuk (June), shelling of the center of
Vinnytsia and the killing of prisoners of war in Olenivka (July), mass murders in Izium (September), etc. Also, the channels regularly accuse Ukraine of the terrible treatment of
prisoners of war and the
civilian objects both in the territories controlled by Ukraine and in the temporarily occupied ones.
Fakes related to the most famous crimes spread in waves: after the first reports of casualties or the destruction of civilian objects, Russian and pro-Russian disinformation appears almost simultaneously. Channels also often link to each other.
In order to justify Russian crimes, various versions are put forward in the channels: either Ukraine itself committed the crime and now wants to accuse Russia of it, or there was no crime at all, and Ukraine is only trying to put on a show. The goal of the "Ukrainian provocations" is to demonize the Russian Federation, force the West to introduce new sanctions and increase the amount of military aid to Ukraine.
The main case was the mass killing of civilians in Bucha. For Russian and pro-Russian sources, "Bucha" has become synonymous with Ukraine's attempts to falsify evidence to accuse the Russian Federation of war crimes. For example, when representatives of the Ukrainian authorities talked about mass burials in Izium in September, propagandists called it " Bucha 2.0" or " Izium Bucha".
Some pro-Russian channels do not completely duplicate Russian fakes, but try to confuse the audience by presenting different versions of events and ignoring Russia's obvious responsibility for the outbreak of the war. So, on March 16, the "Legitymnyi" channel relayed the Ukrainian and Russian versions of the explosion in the Mariupol theater, and instead of checking the facts, the authors advised readers not to trust anyone in this war. The same thing happened on April 8 with the "Whisperer of Ukraine. War" channel: the post stated the position of the Russian Federation and Ukraine regarding the shelling of the railway station in Kramatorsk, but refused to draw any conclusions.
The emotional coloring of posts about war crimes is negative, full of hatred and contempt for both the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian citizens. Sometimes, the authors of Telegram channels openly mock the statements of the Ukrainian authorities about the genocide of Ukrainians during a full-scale invasion.
The emotional coloring of posts about war crimes is negative, full of hatred and contempt for both the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian citizens. Sometimes, the authors of Telegram channels openly mock the statements of the Ukrainian authorities about the genocide of Ukrainians during a full-scale invasion.
Disinformation about war crimes overlaps with disinformation about terrorism (narrative #9) and Nazism (narrative #1) in Ukraine.
Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels began promoting the narrative of "brazen" Ukrainian refugees from the first days of the full-scale invasion, when Ukrainians left en masse for safety in Europe. Allegedly, upon arrival, the Ukrainians
engaged in vandalism and generally behaved
Europe itself and ordinary
citizens are not ready to accept refugees and are trying to expel them from the country. For example, to
deport to Rwanda.
To prove the bad treatment of refugees, propagandists distributed edited photos with fake posters or inscriptions. So, shops in Prague allegedly began to hang signs "Ukrainians are not allowed to enter." Russian telegram channels "Zakhar Prilepin", "Voenkor Kotenok Z", "Colonelcassad" spread such news. Or the taxi service "Uber" in Vienna refused to transport Ukrainians, and Polish hotels canceled the discount for Ukrainians.
Information about fights involving Ukrainians was systematically recorded. In particular, Russian telegram channels actively reported that the actress Agnia Mishchenko-Brodska, the granddaughter of a Russian poet, was allegedly brutally beaten by Ukrainian refugees in Italy. Later, theses began to appear that the " black" business of selling Ukrainian refugees was flourishing in Europe. Ukrainians, who escaped, risk becoming laboratory test subjects or material for donor organs. There are also references to sexual slavery.
Manipulations on national contradictions form a separate category. For example, the Poles allegedly added to the questionnaire for obtaining a PESEL card for residence in Poland a question about the attitude to Stepan Bandera and the Volyn tragedy. Often, when describing the conflicts, Ukrainians are called "Banderivtsi" and "Nazis". There are claims that Ukrainian refugees brought Nazism with them to Europe, they paint swastikas everywhere, burn Russian flags and insult Russians.
Posts about Ukrainian refugees are full of negative emotions toward people seeking protection in European countries. And on the contrary, telegram channels have a positive attitude towards those who voluntarily or even forcibly moved from Ukraine to Russia.
The narrative about refugees intersects with historical fakes (narrative #19), as the history of Ukraine's relations with Russia or European countries is often mentioned in the context of refugees. It is also possible to notice a connection with the narrative about Nazism — according to propagandists, Ukrainians go to Europe and spread anti-human ideology there.
Russian and pro-Russian telegram channels began to write about Kyiv's dependence on the West in the first days of the invasion. The statements of Putin and the Russian elite, which Russian propagandists then quoted, discussed, and analyzed, greatly stimulated the promotion of the narrative.
At the beginning of spring, a thesis appeared that the USA does not plan to help Ukraine with weapons, and the "Ukrainian case" is needed only for sanctions and informational influence on Russia. Ukraine itself will then be divided according to the Yugoslav scenario. When the USA began to actively provide weapons to Ukraine, the rhetoric changed to "the West is pumping weapons into Ukraine to exacerbate the conflict."
The events in Ukraine are called a " proxy war between NATO and Russia", Ukraine - a "training ground", Ukrainians - " cannon fodder" and " expendable material". Allegedly, Russia is not at war with Ukraine but with NATO or the " collective West", which deliberately provoked it to start an invasion. The US is accused of sponsoring "Nazism" and creating a "dirty bomb".
In Pro-Russian telegram channels, we recorded mentions that the US supported or organized a "coup d'état" in Ukraine, thereby gaining access to the country's governance. That is, "Western curators" seem to have been running Ukraine since 2014.
The narrative about Western control over Ukraine is perceived with extremely negative emotions in Telegram channels. Everything related to any form of Western support for Ukraine immediately arouses the indignation of propagandists.
Total control over Ukraine, according to the authors of the telegram channels, is directly related to the spread of Nazism in the country (narrative #1), the creation of military biological laboratories (narrative #14), the prosperity of black transplantology (narrative #13), unsuccessful reforms ( narrative #16). Russian propaganda also uses Ukraine's dependence on the West to justify aggression (narrative #2)
Telegram channels featured significantly fewer fakes about black transplants in Ukraine compared to other narratives. At the same time, both Russian and pro-Russian channels spread mostly false news. In both cases, the fake authors used characteristic words such as "black transplantology", "market of human organs", "disappearance of children", etc.
One of the sub-narratives spread by the propagandists was that in Ukraine, the organs of the soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are illegally sold and transported to Europe. According to another sub-narrative, trade in the organs of civilians, including children, is thriving in Ukraine. Authors of fake news often mention that the West massively purchases human organs from Ukraine.
Mainly, fake authors focused their attention on the so-called black transplantology in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Propaganda channels claimed that the illegal trade in organs has been going on there for several years, starting from 2014-2015.
The main Russian Telegram channel, which spread disinformation on this topic, is "Svodki opolcheniia Novorossiia". Among the pro-Russian Telegram channels, the “Ukraina.ru” channel spread the most fakes about black transplants.
Most of the messages within this narrative had a sharply negative connotation because they were aimed at evoking a strong emotional reaction in the audience, including fear for their lives and safety, as well as distrust to the Ukrainian authorities. Fakes about black transplants were also used in conjunction with the narrative about biolaboratories in Ukraine.
Despite the fact that reports about the activities of so-called "biolaboratories" were spread by Russian propaganda for years before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, since February 24, the number of these fakes has increased many times. For example, in March, Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels published "news" about US military biological laboratories in Ukraine every day. In April, there were also publications almost every day, except for April 22 and 26.
Russian telegram channels wrote about "American military biological laboratories" much more than pro-Russian ones. Most of the pro-Russian channels did not spread the statements of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Putin, and other representatives of the Russian government about "secret laboratories", the creation of biological weapons in Ukraine, and the danger from the laboratories for Ukrainians and the world, as the Russians did. In order to keep this topic in the spotlight, some channels commented on every speech or statement of Russian politicians on this topic.
However, the pro-Russian channels did not ignore this topic. "Ukraina.ru" is the absolute leader, with 90 cases of fake messages recorded by us. The authors of the channel publish the statements of Russian officials and use the same "sources" and "research" as the Russian channels. Other pro-Russian channels are quite careful to mention the topic and avoid references to the Russian authorities but support this narrative. For example, "Legitymnyi" writes about the fact that the West uses Ukraine as a testing ground and mentions the biological threat. This message appeared in July after several waves of dissemination of "evidence" about dangerous laboratories in Ukraine.
Some of the messages within this narrative had a neutral connotation, such as statements and pseudo-investigations by Russian agencies about US funding of laboratories in Ukraine. Other fakes had a sharply negative connotation: Russian resources accused the Ukrainian authorities of conducting experiments on vulnerable groups of the population or forcing disloyal citizens (for example, with pro-Russian views) to participate in dangerous research.
This narrative is closely intertwined with another — the message that the West is using Ukraine for its own purposes. For example, as a testing ground for biological weapons on humans. As well as messages aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian government as violating the rights of its citizens and putting their lives at risk. Some of the messages overlapped with fakes about "black transplantation" in Ukraine.
The first messages aimed at justifying Russia's occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant began to appear in early March. At that time, pro-Russian telegram channels
wrote about "good intentions". For example, the stations were constructed in Russia, and fuel assemblies were produced for them there, so it would be better if the station itself was controlled by Russian specialists. But very quickly, this rhetoric changed to
accusations of the Ukrainian authorities that they are using strategic enterprises, in particular the ZNPP, which can be used to "blackmail the world, using them in the game against Russia".
Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels promoted this narrative in different ways. Russian resources focused on discrediting international organizations and regulators of the industry, accusing them of working for the US or other Western countries, which seem to forbid the IAEA or other institutions to admit that it is Ukraine that is shelling the ZNPP. In addition, considerable attention was paid to the Western media: they published the "confessions" of Western journalists that they "lied" about the Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia NPP in accordance with the editorial policy or otherwise discredited the media that published evidence of the presence of Russian equipment at the ZNPP.
In Russian telegram channels, most of the messages were about the alleged shelling of the ZNPP from Ukraine. And it was often indicated that they were carried out precisely with Western or NATO weapons in order to prove either the direct involvement of third countries in the war in Ukraine or that the West approves "Ukrainian terrorism." In October, there were even reports that "special forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the participation of Great Britain" were preparing to seize the ZNPP.
At that time, pro-Russian Telegram channels also reported on the alleged "attacks" on the ZNPP by the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian "nuclear blackmail", which was claimed by Russian officials. But the emphasis in most publications was on the fact that Russia "has no reason" to strike at the ZNPP, not to attack itself. Therefore, pro-Russian resources focused on proving that the thesis about Russian shelling and provocations at the ZNPP is absurd and illogical. Instead, they threw in fakes, as if in Ukraine, authorities were already trying to convince the population that they would have to strike at the ZNPP. Or that the Ukrainian authorities can themselves damage the ZNPP in order to intimidate the Ukrainians - it will be easier to control them because of their emotions.
So we see that this narrative intersects with Russia's propaganda myth about "Western control" over Ukraine: they say that these crimes are committed with its tacit consent or direct involvement. This narrative is also aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian authorities.
As part of this narrative, disinformation about the course of reforms in Ukraine is being spread. In particular, we recorded fakes about educational, medical, anti-corruption, and law enforcement, land reform. The largest number of cases were recorded on 3 reforms: educational, medical, and anti-corruption. The channels also separately mentioned Ukraine's readiness for future European integration. The relatively small number of identified cases is due to the fact that, against the background of the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, the reforms of Ukraine are not so lively discussed in both Ukrainian and Russian information spaces.
Referring to Ukrainian education, the authors of the channels express dissatisfaction with the fact that some Russian authors are removed from the educational programs, and the program itself is taught in Ukrainian instead of Russian. In addition, according to the propagandists, the goal of the new educational programs is to distort history, spread " Russophobia" and lower the level of critical thinking of the population.
In the field of health care, the channels see a "catastrophe": Ukrainians were allegedly deprived of the opportunity to receive high-quality medical care due to the medical reform, further reductions of staff are expected at medical institutions, and the government is engaged in "unnecessary" initiatives, such as the legalization of medical cannabis. Considerable efforts of fakers are focused on discrediting Uliana Suprun, the former Minister of Health. Both pro-Russian and Russian channels call her the main culprit of the "failed" medical reform.
The anti-corruption reform in the channels is called only an imitation of the fight against corruption, and Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Moreover, the anti-corruption bodies that emerged as a result of the reform are considered instruments of the West to control Ukraine. Thus, the channels often mention NABU or SAP as bodies completely under the control of the US authorities. Thus, when spreading fakes about reforms, propaganda channels repeat the narrative about the use of Ukraine by the West for its own purposes.
If the sources did not always spread disinformation about the mentioned reforms synchronously, fakes about the European integration future of Ukraine were mostly spread by pro-Russian and Russian channels in the same period — June 2022, when it became known that Ukraine was granted the status of a candidate for EU membership. First, the channels claimed that Ukraine is not ready for EU membership according to any criteria. Secondly, the implementation of all EU recommendations will supposedly lead to the liquidation of the " Kyiv regime", so the Ukrainian authorities are not going to move on the path of European integration.
The emotional coloring of disinformation messages within this narrative is extremely negative. The authors of the channels make fun of Ukrainian reformers, belittle the achievements of the Ukrainian state, and spread hatred and animosity towards supporters of reforms.
The narrative about the discrediting of Ukrainian reforms is closely related to at least two other narratives. First, narrative #12 about the West's total control over Ukraine — opponents of reforms believe that any transformations in Ukraine are taking place at the behest of "Western curators." Secondly, narrative No. 3 about the discrediting of government officials — often individual Ukrainian officials symbolize the failure of liberal reforms for Russian propaganda.
Within this narrative, it is claimed that grain exports from Ukraine are causing famine in the country itself. At the same time, Russian and pro-Russian resources promote false claims that the Russian Federation is not
involved in the global crisis, does not
steal grain from Ukraine and does not
destroy it in warehouses and fields.
The key themes within this narrative are very similar for both Russian and pro-Russian channels. Russian resources are more actively defending their power, claiming that the food crisis began much earlier and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has no effect on the grain situation. Russian channels also downplay Ukraine's role in the world grain market.
Pro-Russian channels accuse the Ukrainian authorities of organizing the famine through grain export. Despite the authorities' repeated assurances that there will be enough grain for Ukrainians, pro-Russian telegram channels predict a "humanitarian crisis" in the country.
Both Russian and pro-Russian channels promote the thesis that Ukraine exports grain from the country, which provokes famine, in exchange for weapons. Allegedly, the grain agreement became the only way to get weapons from the West — in exchange for Ukrainian food.
Another common sub-narrative is that food from Ukraine goes to poor African countries but to Europe. Like, it is either resold there or used as animal feed.
For the most part, disinformation messages within this narrative have a negative connotation: the population of Ukraine is threatened with a hunger to cause panic and protest moods. This narrative is partly consistent with claims that the West is using Ukraine for its own purposes, in particular, to provoke world hunger. And, certainly, it is aimed at denying Russian war crimes — stealing food from the occupied territories — in Ukraine.
As part of the monitoring of Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels, we discovered that the Kremlin media spread the most fakes about illegal referendums.
In particular, the Russian mass media distributed various videos with a queue of people at the polling stations in the temporarily occupied territories in order to create a picture of the mass support of the occupation authorities by the citizens of Ukraine.Moreover, the Russian media present false percentages of those who "voted" in pseudo-referendums. In this case, disinformation spreads in waves. If the news about the results of the pseudo-referendums is published on the Russian Telegram channel, after 10-15 minutes, the same information is spread by the pro-Russian channel.
Pro-Russian channels also play along with the Kremlin's narrative. In the reports, you can see statements that Ukraine allegedly intimidates residents of the annexed territories, tries in every possible way to "disrupt" pseudo-referendums, or stage "terrorist attacks". In addition, pro-Russian media refer to unknown sources.
Russian Telegram channels use "foreign observers" to confirm the "legitimacy" of the annexation of Ukrainian territories. Observers arrive in the temporarily occupied territories and declare that the Russian Federation does not exert pressure on the residents and that pseudo-referendums are held in accordance with "international rules." The same statements can be seen in pro-Russian Telegram channels. This disinformation is aimed at justifying the illegal actions of the Russian Federation abroad. There are also publications where pro-Russian sources justify the annexation of territories as "the return of the Russian Federation to its historic lands."
There are fewer fakes about pseudo-referendums in the Telegram channels of Russian military correspondents or analysts. Russian information channels (" Donbas reshaet", " RIA Novosti", " Readovka") and the pro-Russian " Ukraina.ru" are the most actively promoting propaganda.
Messages about the unification of Ukrainians with Russians almost always contain expressions with a positive connotation for Russians (such as "brotherly people"), the audience of the channels also reacts positively to news about the occupation of Ukrainian territories or the collaborationism of Ukrainian citizens.
Fakes about the desire of Ukrainians to join Russia are supported by narratives about the history of Ukraine (narrative #19), in particular about the supposed historical unity of Russia and Ukraine, and the narrative about the justification of Russian aggression (narrative #2). With the latest narrative, Russia is trying to prove that it had the right to invade for the sake of "uniting the Ukrainian and Russian peoples."
It was the Kremlin mass media that spread the most fakes on historical topics. Many narratives were associated with the thesis that "Ukrainians and Russians are brotherly nations." This stamp has long been widely used by the Russian Federation for the purpose of capturing independent states and enslaving neighboring peoples.
Russian Telegram channels accuse Ukrainians of Nazism: allegedly, they are waging a so-called " fratricidal" war, which was unleashed 8 years ago. Pro-Russian Telegram channels reproduced similar theses. In particular, the channels " Open Ukraine 37#", " Legitymnyi" or "U kraina.ru" also often used the stamp "brotherly nations" in their messages.
Many fakes related to the formation of Ukraine as a state. Propagandists spread false theses, such as "Ukraine is the cradle of ancient Russian statehood" or "a historical part of Russia." Kremlin channels often distorted history, appealing to the fact that "Rus" and "Russia" are one and the same state inhabited by the "Russian people" with Buryats, Dagestanis, Chechens, Tatars, etc.
In addition, Russian Telegram channels manipulate on the topic of the common history of Ukraine and Poland, talking about the "genocide organized by Ukrainian nationalists in Volyn." These messages are aimed at undermining Ukraine's strategically important partnership with Poland, and once again repeating myths about Ukraine as a "Nazi state".
Fake messages within this narrative were spread rather with negative connotations in order to increase people's nostalgia for an imaginary "common past", in which Ukrainians lived better in the same country as Russians. Blame for the end of these times is placed on the Ukrainian authorities, which declared the independence of Ukraine and took a course towards European integration, neglecting the interests of the Kremlin. This narrative is designed to justify several other Russian myths: that Ukraine is waging a "fratricidal war" against its own population and that Russian aggression against Ukraine is justified.
The graph of connections between narratives is interactive — you can hover over the vertices and see the connections of individual narratives in more details:
Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels are most likely coordinated from a common center. First, this is due to the similar or even identical disinformation narratives that these channels spread. Secondly, the active distribution of specific messages is synchronized in Russian and pro-Russian channels. In addition, Ukrainian state bodies proved the coordination of a number of pseudo-Ukrainian telegram channels by Russian special services.
In total, as a result of monitoring 41 Russian and 18 pro-Russian channels, we discovered 19 disinformation narratives about Ukraine. For the most part, they are related to the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war and relate to Ukraine's internal or foreign policy. Within these narratives, we found 5,576 cases of disinformation (3,981 in Russian channels and 1,565 in pro-Russian channels). Narratives about "dangerous military biological laboratories" in Ukraine, "terrorist actions of the Ukrainian authorities", and the justification of Russian aggression against Ukraine turned out to be the largest.
Not only the channels, but also the narratives themselves are interconnected. For example, when talking about "Nazism" in Ukraine, Russian propagandists repeatedly repeat narratives about Ukraine as a "terrorist state" or "total control of the West over Ukraine." In fact, there are no completely or partially isolated Kremlin narratives.
The emotional coloring of disinformation messages is different: for example, within the framework of the narratives "Russia is rebuilding Ukraine", and "Ukrainians want to join Russia", positive coverage of events prevails, while when describing the actions of Ukraine, channel authors massively appeal to negative emotions. A neutral attitude towards Ukraine is extremely rare in Telegram channels, usually, the emotionality of the messages is polarized.
Despite a number of common features, there are also differences between Russian and pro-Russian channels in broadcasting disinformation. Sometimes pro-Russian channels only partially duplicate Russian fakes but try to confuse the audience by presenting different versions of events and ignoring Russia's obvious responsibility for the war. Also, some anonymous pro-Russian channels pretend to have constant access to insider information about the internal and external politics of Ukraine.
Russian disinformation can exist in Telegram channels in various forms: the dissemination of different versions of events that contradict each other (especially in the case of justifying war crimes or justifying a full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation in 2022), denying any possibility of obtaining objective information ( the idea that "truth does not exist"), manipulation, falsification of photos and videos, conspiracy theories, etc.
We recommend that policymakers pay attention to direct evidence of disinformation campaigns in Telegram channels and consider the possibility of introducing measures to control the platform, which provides unlimited functionality for disseminating any information without reporting the source or authorship.
Journalists and other specialists in the media sphere are recommended to familiarize themselves with the main narratives promoted by Russian information influence campaigns in order to learn how to distinguish them and not give them additional distribution. And also, pay attention to the fact that the sources of propaganda can be channels that do not have a directly proven connection with the structures of the Russian state media, and therefore it is necessary to pay more attention to the research of the authors of the channels.
We recommend that fact-checkers of various countries focus their efforts on monitoring Telegram channels in order to identify the sources of disinformation and the resources that Russia uses to shape public opinion in as many countries as possible since the study of pro-Russian Telegram channels in Ukraine shows that this may be involved an extensive system of sources directly or indirectly connected to the Kremlin.