Social media is a critical domain of ‘information warfare’, where states seek to advance their interests by shaping the views of their own citizens or those of other nations. A new study tracks activity in this domain at the start of Russia’s invasion.
Bridget Smart and colleagues obtained all tweets sent between February 23rd and March 8th containing the following hashtags: #(I)StandWithPutin, #(I)StandWithRussia, #(I)SupportRussia, #(I)StandWithUkraine, #(I)StandWithZelenskyy and #(I)SupportUkraine.
These hashtags were chosen as they were the most commonly trending hashtags that could be reliably identified with one or other side. If a particular tweet contained a pro-Russian hashtag and a pro-Ukrainian one, it was labelled ‘balanced’. Only English-language tweets were included.
The authors’ main finding is shown in the chart below. In short, the overwhelming majority of tweets (90%) were pro-Ukrainian, whereas only a small percentage were pro-Russian (6.8%).
Now, you might say this is not surprising, as most people in the West support Ukraine and very few support Russia. However, it provides evidence against the commonly heard claim that Russian troll farms exert large sway over public opinion.
An important caveat is that over 100 pro-Russian accounts were banned on March 4th, which partly explains the lack of pro-Russian tweets. However, it’s clear that even before these accounts were banned, the overwhelming majority of tweets were pro-Ukrainian.
Smart and colleagues used the Botometer tool to identify bots, and concluded that about 70% of tweets in their dataset were sent by bots (with the percentage being similar for pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian tweets).
However, as Mike Hearn noted in an article for Daily Sceptic last year, the Botometer tool has a massive false positive rate, making it almost useless. (In other words, it massively overestimates the number of bots.) So I wouldn’t trust the authors’ conclusions in this regard.
On the other hand, their finding that 90% of English-language tweets were pro-Ukrainian strikes me as highly plausible. Indeed, one notable feature of Twitter activity since the start of the war is the ubiquity of certain large, pro-Ukrainian accounts. One of these has attracted particular attention: The Kyiv Independent.
This is the account of a Kiev-based newspaper, founded in November of 2021. (Note: I use ‘Kiev’ because it is the English exonym for Ukraine’s capital.) The Kyiv Independent was the successor to the Kyiv Post, which became defunct last year after a dispute between staff and ownership.
Checking the internet archive, the account had just 731 followers on November 22nd. By February 13th, it was up to 11.4K. By February 24th, the date of Russia’s invasion, it was up to 37.2K. And by 28 March, it was up to 2 million. This is an extraordinary rate of growth, which must be partly explained by algorithmic amplification.
Indeed, The Kyiv Independent – which no one had even heard of before February – has more followers than the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror or The Times (which all joined Twitter more than a decade ago). Not only that, but it doesn’t produce any content in Ukrainian, so almost all its readers are in the West.
Another point worth noting is that calling itself ‘independent’ is a stretch, as the newspaper received a $200,000 grant from the Canadian government.
Evidence suggests that pro-Ukrainian accounts are much more influential on English-language Twitter than pro-Russian accounts. This is in part because the latter are frequently banned. Yet the unprecedented rise of The Kyiv Independent suggests that Twitter is also shaping the discourse via artificial boosting – not just banning.