In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin’s supporters flooded the Internet with disinformation. It wasn’t unexpected as every conflict also has a parallel Information War being waged. What makes things different today is that the latter is now fought in real time across Facebook, Telegram, and Twitter with countless numbers of people being reached in seconds, many of whom end up believing the propaganda. Russia is a master of this tactic.
No country has escaped Russia’s Information War, least of all the various shades of conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists. Having all but abandoned focusing on COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns, our own assortment of conspiracy theorists and extremists here in Ireland jumped on the war as their latest hobby horse. From the beginning of the war Russian disinformation was rife in their ecosphere. Nearly three months on, though, has that changed?
In early March we published a piece which looked at the spread of pro-Russia disinformation on Telegram over the course of three days from 27 February to 2 March. Although it was relatively early in the war a substantial amount of fighting had taken place as it seemed Russian forces were intent on completely annexing Ukraine.
Online, the Information War was well under way. In the three days we saw dozens of messages in support of the invasion on Irish conspiracy theorist and far-right Telegram channels. A common theme was that Putin had invaded Ukraine to undermine the West’s supposed child trafficking regime. Another was that the invasion was carried out to destroy US bio-weapons facilities in the country. All in all, a huge amount of support for the Russian attack on Ukraine was on display.
These talking points seem to have originated from Russian agents in order to rationalise the invasion. On 2 May the UK government revealed details of a troll factory in Russia dedicated to spreading pro-Russian disinformation online. According to the Foreign Office “The evidence shows the troll factory is using Telegram to actively recruit and co-ordinate new supporters who then target the social media profiles of Kremlin critics”. Unfortunately, not much appears to have changed in terms of the Information War Russia is conducting online. On Irish extremist social media the pro-Russian narrative continues to be spread. Telegram’s role as a primary vector in all of this remains undisputed even though the topics have somewhat changed.
One subject of discussion that emerged in recent weeks was that Ukraine had introduced a form of social credit system similar to the one in China. In this case the credit system was to be used to differentiate between those who’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who haven’t. The latter were to be punished for their lack of vaccination with the state withholding welfare payments from them. All of this is supposedly part of the Great Reset the World Economic Forum (WEF) is attempting to introduce. The Great Reset actually entails a plan to create economic equity as well environmental sustainability. But conspiracy theorists have warped this into a dystopia which elites are attempting to foist on the world. And the Ukrainian version has been spread across Telegram in the Irish ecosphere as well. Of course, though, it’s entirely false.
Horrific antisemitism has also begun to appear in the same Telegram groups. One extremely popular channel with 2,344 members posted that “Jewish controllers of London, Washington, and Ukraine” are engaged in propaganda against Russia. The channel has also posted Russian disinformation that one of the reasons that Putin ordered the attack on Ukraine was to ensure “baby factory fraud” and “organ harvesting” were “taken apart” in the country. According to the Canadian Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Russia has “created and amplified fake stories and narratives” to justify its illegal attack on Ukraine.
Elsewhere on the Telegram channel in question one can find regular updates about the “Russian Military Advance” in Ukraine which include detailed maps showing troop movements and photos of Russian attacks. One such photo purports to show a British missile Russian forces captured from Ukrainian soldiers. Under the photo the admin of the channel wrote “When payback comes, and it will, Londoners will pay the price with loss of property and their lives”.
These images originated on a Russian-government-linked website called SouthFront. According to the US Department of the Treasury, SouthFront takes direct orders from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, also known as the KGB. Given these links the website has been hit by US sanctions.
A new party but old disinformation
One curious entrant in the Russian Information War is the Telegram channel of a seemingly new Irish political party.
Reclaim Ireland, which popped up last year, seems to be a major source of pro-Russia disinformation on Telegram. Not much is known about the party, but in the preamble to its “Political Manifesto” it’s written that “We clearly and decisively distance ourselves from any form of extremist efforts that undermine the liberal democratic order and actively try to prevent them”. The manifesto goes on to say that the group is dedicated to upholding the Irish constitution. On the surface it appears to be the manifesto of another centrist or centre-right party. Probably most telling is the About Us section in which it’s written that one of the main goals of election candidates after being elected to the Dáil will be “the process of repealing the repugnant statutory instrument SI-121 of 2020”. This piece of legislation essentially consisted of the majority of Ireland’s lockdown laws, none of which apply any longer.
A particularly interesting part of the group’s manifesto is a comment which declares that economics is based on individual initiative. And, because of this, the economy “must therefore not be controlled by the State and must be based on mutual agreements between economic operators and on free pricing”. Although the names of those behind the group aren’t currently known, the party claims have already have more than 30 candidates committed to running in the next general election.
On its Telegram chat channel though, pro-Russian talking points are rife. One user, implying that Ukraine has a Nazi problem, accused the Irish government of being “neo Nazi [sic] sympathisers” as a result of allowing Ukrainian refugees into the country. They wrote that the government has “brought them to Ireland to create war on our soil”. Going on, they accused the EU, UN, and World Health Organisation (WHO) of being “terrorist organisation[s]”.
Another user in the same channel denied that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine, instead accusing the latter of being the perpetrator. Members of the same channel also drew attention to the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, with one sharing RT videos about the controversial soldiers. Others in the channel have likewise pointed to Azov and the supposed “huge Nazi problem” in Ukraine. This is simply an echoing of Russian claims to be engaged in “denazifying” the country.
Legitimising the illegitimate
Subscribers to conspiracy theorist and extremist Telegram channels highlighting Azov is nothing new. Although the battalion is a part of the Ukrainian military it doesn’t follow that the country is therefore infested with Nazis. But the battalion’s reputation is a useful hammer pro-Russian actors use to beat Ukraine with in the Information War. A timeline containing mentions of Azov across all of Telegram from 1 February to 8 May shows peaks and valleys. On 18 April, though, there’s a noticeable spike in mentions of the battalion which happens to be the same day that Ukraine submitted a questionnaire to the EU as part of a first step in gaining membership. This likely isn’t a coincidence.
As already mentioned, there’s a substantial amount of antisemitism also on display in many Telegram channels. The contradictions between this and support for Russia’s supposed “denazifying” campaign are obvious but go unmentioned. One peculiar antisemitic conspiracy theory on display in some Irish Telegram groups has been what’s called the “Khazarian Mafia” theory. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), it’s based on an idea that modern Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of the Khazars, a tribe which lived in the area of Ukraine around the 6th century. Conspiracy theorists and extremists have now used this to claim that Ashkenazi Jews are actually fake Jews and that the current war is a continuation of the conflict between the Khazars and the local population from centuries ago. Khazar has now become synonymous with Rothschild as an antisemitic dog whistle.
For now, Irish conspiracy theorists and extremists remain happy to lend their support to the Russian campaign. Some are likely true believers and have convinced themselves that Putin and his soldiers are indeed fighting nefarious assorted elites and global organisations in Ukraine. Others are doubtless propagandists for Russia and are digital soldiers in the Information War. All of this is a cover for Russia’s irredentist policies which, for now, target Ukraine. Nobody knows what’s next but whatever happens, Russia’s online supporters will do whatever they can to try and legitimise the illegitimate.
Featured image via Pexels – Sima Ghaffarzadeh