Hackers, Nurses, and Arnold: Inside the Struggle to Get Information on the Ukraine War for the Russians

The State Department created an account on Telegram, a messaging app popular with Russians, four days after the war in Ukraine in which it became apparent that Washington was missing an opportunity to interact with the Russians, a senior State Department official told CNN.

A series of posts on the account in Russian amplified President Joe Biden’s denunciations of the war and warned Russians about the Russian propaganda machine.

“Long before the Kremlin launched its massive invasion of Ukraine, it intensified its campaign of disinformation and censorship of independent media and continues to do so even during the war of aggression,” the ministry said in its Telegram account on Thursday.

The Russian handling of the State Department’s Telegram account so far appears to be quite modest – the account had 1,911 subscribers as of Friday afternoon Moscow time and the country’s total population is around 142 million.

Analysts say it is unlikely that any platform or messaging campaign will penetrate the Russian public in any significant way. But the common goal of a group of actors trying to break through the digital Iron Curtain is to eliminate, cumulatively, Russian public support for the war and the morale of Russian soldiers.

The State Department also has an account on the Russian messaging platform VK, has set up a website to refute Russian disinformation in recent weeks, and has worked to attract US officials to Russian-language broadcasting platforms, the official said.

Not a “silver bullet”

“None of that is a silver bullet,” the State Department official said, acknowledging Russia’s formidable wall of censorship, which access prohibited To Twitter and Facebook.

But some critics have pointed out that the US government needs to do more and aim to emulate the massive propaganda efforts of the Cold War when significant resources were devoted to pushing messages to the Soviet people.

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Russian authorities have arrested thousands of people protesting the war in Ukraine. The Russian state TV journalist who interrupted a live news broadcast on Monday with a sign saying “No to war” was arrested and fined $270 but could still face imprisonment.

“This is a real Achilles heel for Putin,” James Clapper, who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, told CNN. He said the US government should use any social media platform available to bring photos of dead Russian soldiers and prisoners of war to Russian citizens.

Several Russian prisoners of war appeared at press conferences held by the Ukrainian authorities. This may be a questionable practice under the Geneva Convention, which prohibits states from causing unnecessary humiliation to prisoners of war.

“This kind of thing lends itself to covert action on the part of the United States government,” Clapper said. “I trust and hope to do something along those lines.”

The US intelligence services closely monitor public opinion in Russia, but it is not clear whether there is any planning underway to conduct any form of classified information operations.

“We are watching what is happening in Russia,” said a Western source familiar with the intelligence, adding that it was not yet clear whether public opinion was breaking with the war or against it.

There are less ambiguous ways to support the free flow of information into Russia.

Alina Polyakova, head of the non-profit Center for European Policy Analysis, said the Foreign Ministry’s Telegram account was “a step in the right direction, but frankly not creative enough.”

Polyakova, who grew up in Kyiv in the 1980s, said that Russians today do not trust Western media or government officials as sources of information as they did in the final days of the Cold War.

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“We really need to be more creative in thinking about who the appropriate messengers are,” she added, referring to several journalists who have fled Russia in recent weeks as the Kremlin has criminalized independent reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Polyakova said Western governments and charitable organizations now have a “big opportunity” to support these journalists as they are likely to continue reporting from abroad and reaching out to Russian audiences who trust them.

We must bring them real news.

As the State Department sends carefully worded messages to Russian citizens, a loose group of volunteer hackers from Ukraine and beyond is becoming more and more confrontational.

The so-called Ukrainian IT army, which Kyiv actively encourages, has researched to hack Russian news sites and disseminate information about Russian losses in Ukraine, according to Igor Oshev, a Ukrainian cybersecurity executive who said he helped organize the mass hacking group on behalf of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. .

Oshev said by phone from Ukraine that Russian citizens “do not know much about what is happening here.” “That’s why we decided that one of the most important goals should be the media. We should give them the real news.”

But reaching a Russian audience does not require breaking into a computer. The Americans are among the many people who have texted the Russians using a website created by an international group of volunteer programmers known as Squad303.

Stacey McCoy, a Florida nurse, sent nearly 100 text messages and hundreds of emails to Russians using the platform. She began to personalize the messages with her voice, saying that Moscow was lying to its citizens and that the war had killed civilians.

So far, Maki has received only three responses: “Stop working”, “Crimea is ours” and one response threatening “Send your message to the relevant authorities! Stop making such calls!”

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Mackey’s hostile responses were not deterred.

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“I think it’s best to be proactive, to take a stand, even if it’s a small matter to try to influence the overall situation,” she told CNN.

More prominent Americans are joining the cause.

Schwarzenegger, the “Terminator” star and former California governor, addressed the “Russian people” in a video with Russian subtitles that he posted Thursday to 5 million followers on Twitter and more than 19,000 subscribers to Telegram.

“I hope you will allow me to tell you the truth about the war in Ukraine and what is happening there,” Schwarzenegger said before detailing the Russian bombing of the Ukrainian maternity ward.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much traction the Schwarzenegger video might have had within Russia. But on Friday, the term “Arnie” broke into Twitter’s top 10 list of trending topics within Russia, and several topics featuring Schwarzenegger’s video were accompanied by praise and criticism from Twitter users.

A source close to Schwarzenegger told CNN that the former bodybuilder made the video on his own and was not asked by the US government to do so.

But the State Department’s Telegram account wasted no time in sharing the video, and others in the information ecosystem have followed suit.

Blake Ferrell, an Indiana plumber, told CNN he sent Schwarzenegger’s video to several Russians on Telegram, and still images of the actor’s speech to other Russians via the Squad303 text messaging platform.

Ferrell hasn’t received any responses yet, but he wants to keep trying to reach a Russian audience.

“For me, it’s the thrill of reaching someone else,” he said.

CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis and Dana Bach contributed to the report.

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