With Russia’s troops dying in fierce battles against Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, Moscow is choking the flow of outside information to its citizens and filling the void with news reports of sunny successes in a conflict that, official Kremlin narratives say, is not a war.
On the weekend, Russian authorities blocked access to Twitter and Facebook from within the country, threatened to shut down news outlets that used terms such as “invasion” or “declaration of war” and detained journalists.
Meanwhile, Moscow-backed news outlets spread word – immediately declared “a sick fake” by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister – that Kyiv is preparing a dirty bomb, and that border guards held up as heroes for their defence of a strategic island had, in fact, surrendered and were now “happy” in the arms of Russian forces.
Those guards have been lionized in the West for defiantly taunting a Russian warship at Snake Island, in the Black Sea.
“This is warfare playing out in cyberspace very much for the first time at this scale,” said Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, an internet monitoring organization. He has been tracking the Russian Twitter block since noon Moscow time. On Saturday evening, he said there were also signs of Russian blocks on access to Facebook Messenger.
Facebook parent Meta has said it will no longer allow Russian state media to purchase ads or monetize content on the company’s platforms.
Russia’s official narrative, which its media have been ordered to transmit, is it is performing a necessary liberation of Ukraine, with a military operation that has spared civilians and secured the “peaceful surrender” of cities such as Melitopol, in the country’s east.
“Everything is under control,” reported Zavtra, a far-right Russian newspaper, claiming the Russian offensive was “proceeding calmly” and without chaos.
In reality, Russian forces have encountered intense fighting across Ukraine that has limited their advances and exacted a heavy toll in lost armour and lives – including in Melitopol, which British officials said Saturday had not actually been captured by Russia.
Russian missiles, meanwhile, have struck Ukrainian schools and residential areas. The government of Ukraine said civilian deaths have included three children, one of them a seven-year-old girl who succumbed to injuries from the shelling of a kindergarten.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has released a series of videos from the streets of Kyiv to counter Russian reports that he has fled the country. And Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council issued a warning Saturday that online forums and chat apps – including WhatsApp, Viger, Telegram and Facebook – have been “flooded with enemy agents” writing in Russian. Many have joined the platforms since Friday, the council said, and some of them are asking questions about driving directions, such as: What is the best route to Kyiv with a small child? The council warned against offering information on the locations of passable roads.
There is considerable evidence that Russian cyber offences have struck upon a determined resistance, even at home. Protests against the invasion of Ukraine have brought thousands to the streets in major Russian cities, while some of the country’s oligarchs have publicly broken with Mr. Putin. Even the head of Russia’s delegation to a United Nations climate summit apologized on Sunday for the invasion, which he said lacked justification, the Financial Times reported.
“Putin is not winning here,” said Maria Avdeeva, a scholar of disinformation and the research director of European Experts Association, a think tank that focuses on security in Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s Russian critics, meanwhile, have held their ground. Novaya Gazeta, one of several newspapers threatened by Russian censors, published its Friday edition in Russian and Ukrainian, with a stark cover headline: “Russia. Bombs. Ukraine.” Mikhail Matveev, a Russian opposition lawmaker, wrote on Twitter: “The war should be stopped immediately.”
Cyberattacks began to disrupt the Russian internet on Saturday, rendering inoperable a number of key government websites, including those belonging to the Kremlin and the country’s censorship organization. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation reported Ukrainian music was playing on Russian TV channels, for which it credited the hacker group Anonymous.
In Moldova, authorities blocked the local edition of the Russian-owned Sputnik News. In Australia, Rupert Murdoch-owned Foxtel stopped carrying the state-backed broadcaster Russia Today. The European Union said it would ban Sputnik and Russia Today.
In Russia, the campaign to silence independent sources of information continued. Journalists for Novaya Gazeta and Radio Liberty were detained in Belgorod on Saturday. Sputnik, meanwhile, published a report accusing Ukrainian armed forces of acting like Nazis and Syrian terrorists.
Official Russian accounts of the conflict have taken reality and “turned it completely upside down,” Ms. Avdeeva said. With Russia struggling to gain traction for its propaganda efforts abroad, the main target is now its own population, she added.
But, she said, the Kremlin’s increasing determination to censor suggests desperation.
“They are losing in this information war.”
Editor’s Note: This story references a story where authorities in Kyiv said 13 Ukrainians were killed by a Russian warship on Snake Island. In fact, recent reports by authorities in Kyiv are that the 13 are alive and were captured by the Russians. See this article.
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