In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Twitter accounts shared messages of support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
They tried to avert criticism of the war by comparing it to conflicts provoked by Western countries. Their comments — along with tweets from other users condemning it — made the hashtag #IStandWithPutin trend on Twitter in various regions around the world.
While some of the accounts said they were based in Nigeria and South Africa, the majority of those with a location indicated on Twitter claimed to be from India and directed their messages to other Indian users, researchers said.
The prevalence of accounts claiming to be Indian users indicates that India’s social media landscape has become a major destination in the effort to influence public opinion about the war in Ukraine. Users who said they were from India made up nearly 11 percent of the hashtag trend in the two weeks following the invasion. Only 0.3 percent came from Russia at the time and 1.6 percent came from the United States.
Some accounts used fake profile pictures, which made the researchers suspicious. Others racked up thousands of retweets on their pro-Putin posts, despite having few followers and little engagement with the rest of their tweets.
While the activity suggested the accounts may not be authentic, there was no hard evidence that they were part of a coordinated influence campaign aimed at changing sentiment about the war in India. A Twitter spokeswoman said the company is still investigating.
The challenge of identifying influence campaigns is further complicated by the divisions of public opinion in India. While some people vehemently oppose the war, others have vocally supported Russia and marched to show support.
“Russia and India have long-standing and deep security and economic ties,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s digital forensics lab. “If you are Russia and you are faced with more global control, increasing global shutdown, you look to countries like India to at least refrain from trying to isolate Russia as much as humanly possible.”
The death of an Indian student during the fighting in Ukraine earlier this month highlighted India’s challenge to evacuate nearly 20,000 of its citizens who were in the country when the Russian invasion began. Hundreds of Indian students were trapped amid heavy shelling at the time. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has avoided condemning Russia, appealed to Mr Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky, for help.
The local embassy of Russia used Twitter to Indian media instructing not to use the word ‘war’, but instead refer to it as a ‘special military operation’, as the media in Russia is legally required to do. Some Indian Twitter users responded by mocking the embassy, while others berated local media as inept and in need of instruction from Russia.
Pro-Russian sentiment has taken hold in right-wing circles in the United States, misinformation has spread in Russia alleging that Ukrainians have bombed or bombed their own neighborhoods, and myths about Ukrainian fortitude have gone viral on social media. media platforms. But in India and other countries where social media users have joined the hashtag, pro-Russian stories have focused on ethnonationalism and Western war hypocrisy, themes that have resonated with social media users.
“There were dense clusters of communities engaged in it, many of which were based in India or Pakistan,” said Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies and digital humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, who analyzed the accounts. using # ISstandWith Putin.
March 29, 2022, 13:06 ET
It was not clear whether the accounts promoting pro-Putin messages in India were authentic, although Dr. Jones said some of the most popular engaged in suspicious behavior, such as using stock photos as profile pictures or collecting likes and retweets despite having few followers.
Pro-Russian posts have also been bolstered by Twitter users who claim to live in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. While some promoted pro-Russian hashtags, others pointed to examples of what they termed Western hypocrisy, such as former President Donald J. Trump’s praise of Mr Putin.
After Dr. Jones published his findings, Twitter suspended more than 100 accounts pushing #IStandWithPutin for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” A Twitter spokeswoman said it was spammers trying to force talks about the conflict.
“Since the war in Ukraine began, we have removed more than 75,000 accounts for violations of our platform manipulation and spam policies,” Sinéad McSweeney, Twitter’s vice president of global policy, said in a statement. blog post earlier this month. “These accounts represent a wide variety of attempts to manipulate the service – including opportunistic, financially motivated spam – and we do not currently believe they represent any specific, coordinated campaign associated with any government agency.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Map 1 of 3
Ongoing peace talks. Russia said it would greatly reduce military activity near Kiev and the northern city of Chernihiv. The announcement was the first sign of progress that came from the peace talks between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul.
To the ground. Russia’s apparent concessions in northern Ukraine reflected a successful Ukrainian resistance that has stranded Russian forces around the outskirts of Kiev and recaptured territory near the capital and towns closer to the Russian border.
Biden’s comments. Speaking in Warsaw on Saturday, President Biden said President Vladimir V. Putin “cannot stay in power”, prompting US officials to rush to roll back the ad-lib. On Monday, Mr Biden stuck to his comment but said it was a personal expression of his “moral outrage.”
But some accounts in India probably belonged to real people, said Dr. jones. “If you can get enough people to spread a message, real people will join in,” he said. “It becomes difficult to separate the organic behavior from the inorganic because it is a mesh.”
In India, some right-wing groups have put forward similar messages. An organization called The Hindu Sena marched in support of Russia in the heart of the Indian capital this month. The participants were led by the group’s chairman, Vishnu Gupta, with Russian flags ordered for the occasion, as well as saffron-colored flags often flown by Hindu nationalists.
More than 300 activists chanted: “Russia, you fight on, we are with you” and “Long live the friendship of India and Russia.”
“Russia has always been behind India and is its best friend. While America supports Pakistan and does not want an Asian power to emerge,” Gupta said in an interview. “We do not believe in war. But now that it’s happening, India has to go with Russia. We need to make our position clear.”
The Russian embassy in India has also used Twitter and Facebook to promote conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine and to pressure the Indian media.
“Many of the influencers who tend to align with Modi see at least a common cause or some of their own views embraced by Putin’s kind of ethnonationalism,” said Mr Brookie.
Facebook said it is working with local partners in India to monitor information on its platform.
Indian leaders have struck a delicate balancing act between Russia, the largest arms supplier, and Ukraine by abstaining from voting against Russia at the United Nations. India has also sent medical supplies to Ukraine. It is looking for ways to maintain its trade ties with Russia, despite sanctions imposed by many Western countries.
But public sentiment about the war could pressure local politicians to take sides, experts said.
“It’s a big, important flashpoint for a truly global competition for information,” said Mr Brookie. “It is a turning point where a number of countries – not just Russia, but also the United States, its allies and partners, as well as China – are positioning themselves.”