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Ukraine conflict social media campaigns tap into distrust of west

After Russia invaded Ukraine, a woman posing as an Indian doctor tweeted her support for President Vladimir Putin. #IStandWithPutin, she wrote, linking to a video of the leader justifying his actions. It went viral, as did the hashtag.

But the profile picture of “Dr. Adhira, which shows a woman in a blue sweater and face mask, was an archive photo pulled from the internet, researchers said. The image had been reversed to avoid image searches. She had less than 100 followers. After more than 5,000 retweets, the account was deleted.

When Twitter banned dozens of accounts promoting the hashtag because the platform was being rigged, former South African President Jacob Zuma’s daughter tweeted the hashtag.

With President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s emotional and direct speeches to parliaments around the world, Ukraine has won the information war in Western countries. His message has been reinforced by Western governments and media sympathetic to his pleas for help and support. But in some countries in Africa and Asia that have grappled with the legacy of Western colonialism and military interventions, such as the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, views have been more divided.

“I don’t think it’s a lack of compassion for Ukraine per se, but rather as an expression of anger and frustration at NATO and the so-called West, especially after there seemed to be so much unanimous support for Ukraine,” he said Marc Owen Jones, online disinformation expert and assistant professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

“It just highlighted how the international community can mobilize when the issue is closer to the ‘Global North,’ reminding others in places like Africa of the tendency to ignore or exploit the continent.”

The disagreement was highlighted in a UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 2, in which 141 countries voted in favor, five countries voted against and 35 abstained, including India and China.

In this context, influencing campaigns – either orchestrated by activists or fabricated by state propaganda machines – fall on fertile ground. While the Twitter campaign was reminiscent of previous influence campaigns using fake or deceptive accounts blamed on Russia in the Middle East and Africa, there is no evidence linking it to the Kremlin. As Shelby Grossman, a research scientist at Stanford Internet Observatory, pointed out, “There is genuine support for Russia in many parts of the world, including parts of Africa.”

Sometimes the borders are fluid. “Dr. Adhira” could well have been a fake account, said Jones, who first flagged it as suspicious. And many, but not all, of the accounts that retweeted her post had the hallmarks of “astroturfing,” a term for a fake grassroots campaign. But authentic accounts also shared the hashtag, as did marketing bots. “There is no smoking gun [linking it to Russia]said Carl Miller, research director at the Center for the Analysis of Social Media, which published a report on the campaign.

Whoever started it, the message has found a willing audience in India. In resisting Western pressure to condemn Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has garnered rare bipartisan support.

In South Africa, politicians have piggybacked interest in the Russia-Ukraine war to further local political causes, said Jean le Roux, a South Africa-based disinformation researcher for the US think tank Atlantic Council.

Beyond the hashtag, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla told her nearly 200,000 followers that Putin was “the most powerful man alive” while Cyril Ramaphosa, her father’s successor, was a “clown president.” Populist South African politician Julius Malema turned to the story to justify his defense of Russia, which “armed us and gave us money to fight apartheid”.

Ultimately, the Russian narrative of the war is being used to propagate “existing anti-Western messages,” Le Roux said. “Russia is seen as an alternative to the West.”

In the Middle East, views towards Russia are highly polarized due to its military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But many, including in the Gulf states, who have sought to balance their ties with the US and Russia, took to social media to question the differences in response to the devastating US war in Iraq in 2003.

In some cases, official Russian social media accounts have simply boosted local news content. “The ongoing war in Ukraine has brought to light racism against non-Europeans,” the Russian embassy in Cairo tweeted, following a video segment produced by a Jordanian radio station that said Europeans give Ukrainians more media attention than they do were bestowed upon victims of wars in the Middle East.

Researchers warn against exaggerating the impact of such campaigns. “That’s the million-dollar question: are these campaigns having any impact? It’s extremely hard to know,” Grossman said.

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