Twitter has banned more than 100 accounts that pushed the pro-Russian hashtag #IStandWithPutin for participating in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” days after the hashtag trended on Twitter amid the invasion in Ukraine.
A Twitter spokesperson said on Friday that it is still investigating the origins and links between the accounts, and that it banned the accounts for violating its “platform manipulation and spam policy.”
The accounts with the most retweets about the hashtag on Wednesday only had a few dozen followers and used stock photos as profile pictures, which led disinformation researchers to question how the tweets went viral.
It’s an indication that Russia’s once-feared “firehose of falsehood” has been both neutralized and drowned out in recent weeks, particularly as Western media and social platforms have sprung into action.
The swarm of inauthentic accounts was initially discovered by Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar.
“People throw the term bots around a lot, but what we saw here was lots of accounts demonstrating inauthentic activity and astroturfing,” Jones said. “They’re not bots. They’re a lot harder to check than that. Imagine a call center setup. Think of the amount of damage you can do.”
The #IStandWithPutin hashtag then received a second wind as a trending topic when authentic accounts began tweeting the hashtag simply to criticize it.
“This is the paradox of this kind of behavior,” Jones said. “Some of the most engaged tweets were people denouncing the hashtag.”
Its failed attempt at building support on Twitter is the latest illustration of a Russian propaganda war that’s fallen flat in the West. Since the invasion, the Kremlin has struggled to penetrate new barriers imposed on digital platforms and advance an anti-Ukraine narrative. On newer platforms, such as TikTok, pro-Ukraine content has dominated.
That’s a marked change from the first six weeks of the year, when Russian messaging was more potent and pervasive, according to a report from Omelas, a digital analysis firm.
Russia flooded social media worldwide in early January at the same time that Western media wasn’t as focused on Ukraine reporting, Omelas found. That gave Russia a window to spread Kremlin-backed propaganda, including referring to a Ukraine invasion as a “military operation,” reporting that Ukraine was provoking the war and other narratives most favorable to Russia, according to Omelas.
From Jan. 1-Feb. 20, Omelas tracked more than 192,000 posts from Russian government sources on the topic of Ukraine — 40 percent of all the posts it tracked in that time.
Kremlin-backed dominance over the conversation changed in mid-February, as troops massed on the Ukrainian border and Russian President Vladimir Putin readied an attack. The Western media’s round-the-clock coverage of the war and a consistency of reporting that showed Putin as the aggressor has dominated the news, which has helped build worldwide sympathy for Ukraine, said Andrew Gonzalez, a geopolitical analyst with Omelas.
“Russia isn’t getting the same impact of its audiences as it historically has gotten,” Gonzalez said. “The audience is certainly believing more so the Western portrayal that it’s a tragedy for Ukraine and Russia is the aggressor. That narrative is quite firm right now.”
Gonzalez added that Western media reports have strongly pushed back on Putin’s portrayal of events in Ukraine, which has included his attempt to convince audiences that Russia was preparing to act in self-defense.
“That was not the case a week ago, but it’s quickly becoming the case and you could definitely look at a much larger picture and see that that’s the trend the whole world is really going in,” Gonzalez said of the pushback on Putin’s narrative from Western media. “Russia is losing a lot of ground — and their media — to the entire democratic media production effort that is focused on Ukraine right now.”
The impact of Russian messaging waned as it became more and more clear an invasion neared, Omelas found.
The Kremlin’s reach is expected to contract even more thanks to ongoing efforts from social media platforms. YouTube, Facebook and other major social media sites limited the reach of Russia’s state media, RT and Sputnik.
Sinan Aral, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the platforms had taken a different strategy from when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.
“Today, the information war in Ukraine is more intense, more tightly contested and arguably more important than ever because motivating volunteer fighters at home and encouraging foreign support abroad are critical to success,” he wrote. “And this time, it seems, Russia is losing.”
Tech companies are continuing to go after Russia-linked accounts. Earlier this week, Facebook and Twitter banned several fake identities created by a Russian troll farm who were posing as Ukrainian journalists.
Even after the ban, however, the fake Ukrainian journalists continued to post articles as if Russia’s invasion had resulted in Ukraine’s immediate surrender.
A post from Tuesday on one of the troll farm’s websites, Ukraine Today, is subtitled: “What could be the political structure of post-war Ukraine?” It begins with the line: “The military operation in Ukraine continues, but its outcome is already a foregone conclusion.”