In the Russian video TikTok has everything: a cat, puppies and a pulsating background rhythm. It is cute, visually and hardly seems to be the material of state propaganda.

Suggested video from a previous report.

In 2014, Russia flooded the Internet with fake accounts promoting misinformation about the capture of Crimea. Eight years later, experts say Russia is making a much better effort if it invades Ukraine.

Armies of trolls and bots incite anti-Ukrainian sentiment. State-controlled media seek to divide Western audiences. TikTok’s clever videos serve Russian nationalism with a sense of humor.

These efforts are part of Russia’s military arsenal, which is formed through organized disinformation that fights alongside real troops and weapons.

In the video with cats, a husky puppy, marked with a digitally inserted US flag, stretches on the tail of a tabby marked with the Russian flag. The cat responds with a fierce blow that makes the unfortunate dog scurry. The clip, which has been viewed 775,000 times in two weeks, is the work of an account called Funrussianprezident, which has 310,000 subscribers. Almost all of his videos have pro-Russian content.

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“It could be just a patriotic Russian fighting a good fight as they see it, or it could be something directly related to the state,” said Nina Yankovich, a disinformation researcher and expert on Eastern Europe at the Wilson Center in Washington. “Russia is improving this tactic.”

Now they are putting them into the game.

Analysts from several different research organizations contacted by The Associated Press said they were seeing a sharp increase in online activity from groups linked to the Russian state. This is in line with Russia’s strategy of using social networks and state media to boost domestic support in an effort to destabilize the Western alliance.

According to Cyabra, an Israeli technology company that detects misinformation, the number of suspicious accounts distributing anti-Ukrainian content on the Internet is rapidly increasing.

Cyabra analysts tracked thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts recently posted about Ukraine. They saw a sudden and sharp rise in anti-Ukrainian content in the days just before the invasion. For example, on Valentine’s Day, the number of anti-Ukrainian messages created by selecting Twitter accounts jumped 11,000% compared to just a few days earlier. Analysts believe that a significant part of the accounts is invalid and controlled by groups affiliated with the Russian government.

“If you see growth of 11,000%, you know something is going on,” said Cyabra CEO Dan Brami. “No one can know who is doing it behind the scenes. We can only guess. “

The work has been going on for some time.

Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Laboratory analyzed 3,000 articles in 10 Russian state news and noted a large increase in unsubstantiated allegations that Ukraine was ready to strike at separatist groups. In general, according to the study, statements by Russian media about the Ukrainian aggression in January increased by 50%.

“This is the way they go to war; this is a central part of the Russian doctrine, ”said Jim Ludes, a former U.S. defense analyst who now runs the Pella Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salva Regina University. Ludes said Russia’s disinformation campaigns were aimed at boosting support for Russia, while confusing and dividing the country’s opponents.

Russia is adapting its propaganda message to a specific audience.

For Russians and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, the message is that Russia is trying to protect its own people from aggression and persecution in Western-fueled Ukraine. A similar tactic was used, including by Nazi Germany, when it invaded Czechoslovakia under the guise of protecting the ethnic Germans living there, Ludes said.

“These are not good guys who use this tactic,” Ludes said. “It’s a language of conquest, not a language of democracy.”

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Russia is also using disinformation to confuse and demoralize its opponents. For example, the Kremlin said it resumed hostilities on Saturday after a pause for possible talks with Ukraine. But AP journalists in different parts of Ukraine have witnessed that the Russian offensive has never stopped.

The chaotic information environment around the invasion has led to confusing and sometimes contradictory reports. On Friday, Ukrainian officials said all troops stationed on the strategic Snake Island had been killed after demonstratively renouncing Russia’s demands for surrender. Later, Russian state television showed footage of living soldiers in custody. The AP was unable to immediately verify any claims.

Meanwhile, the United States has information that Russia is publishing false reports of widespread surrender of Ukrainian troops and claims that Moscow plans to “threaten to kill family members of Ukrainian soldiers if they do not surrender,” said a spokesman for the State Department. Ned Price.

Russia has also used cyberattacks during its invasion of Ukraine, and while they pose a serious threat, online propaganda could do even more damage if it succeeds, said retired Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, a former director of strategic operational planning at the National Center. the United States Counter-Terrorism Service.

“What’s much more dangerous is Russia’s ability to influence what people everywhere believe,” Nagata said. “To make them believe in things that are good for Russia’s strategic interests … If you can change what the whole population believes in, you may not have to attack anything.”

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In the West, Russia seeks to sow division and reduce the chances of a united international response. This is partly done through stable state-controlled media such as Sputnik and RT, which publish in English, Spanish and several other languages.

“The invasion has stopped,” read one headline on RT last week, a few days before Russian troops entered eastern Ukraine. “Tucker Carlson condemns Biden for focusing on Putin, Ukraine, and not on US domestic issues,” Sputnik News reported, citing a common Russian practice: refer to US government critics (such as Fox News presenter Carlson). ) to suggest that America’s leaders are not out of touch.

The European Union expressed concern about RT on Wednesday when it included RT’s editor-in-chief in a list of sanctions imposed on Russian officials. The EU called RT leader Margarita Simanyan “a central figure in government propaganda.”

On Friday, Facebook announced it would ban RT from advertising on its website, and said it would expand the use of labels to identify state media.

Ludes said he was pleased to see the United States and its allies resolutely push back Russian disinformation and even try to prevent it by publicly revealing Russia’s plans.

“The Biden administration has shown some creativity in using intelligence to respond,” he said. “We haven’t seen this from the West since the Cold War.”

Copyright © 2022, Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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