Russia’s propaganda machine has built an alternate reality for its public. To the extent ordinary Russians are hearing about the war at all, they are hearing not about the actual deadly war that has already killed thousands of Russian soldiers and innocent civilians – but about a “special military operation” with narrow goals of “demilitarising” and “denazifying” Ukraine.
Independent media and Western social platforms, the most obvious sources of factual information, are getting blocked in Russia. The government urges Russians to quit American-controlled social media for Russian ones – VK and Odnoklassniki.
So, how do you break through the wall of propaganda? For some Ukrainian activists, the answer is: by using VK and Odnoklassniki to find ordinary Russians and speak to them. A decade ago, these two platforms were widely used in Ukraine as well, but they have been pushed out since 2014, when Russian aggression against Ukraine first began.
Now, some Ukrainians are dusting off their old accounts and using them to contact their relatives, former friends, and just random people from Russia. For example, they send photos of killed Russian soldiers and video interviews with Russian PoWs.
Veronica Tamayo Flores and Oksana Moroz turned this urge into a well-coordinated, mass-scale project with a more professional approach. They say that sending shocking photos doesn’t work – unlike, say, speaking with Russians about the economic devastation the war is causing for Russia itself. In three weeks, Tamayo Flores and Moroz organised hundreds of Ukrainian volunteers to text over 300,000 Russians by using fake or purchased accounts.
Tamayo Flores and Moroz are doing this work within IT#StandForUkraine – an initiative that unites IT and creative specialists to help Ukraine in fighting back the Russian invasion. Tamayo Flores coordinates the whole community, which also does work like software development and lobbying international companies to stop doing business in Russia, while Moroz leads communications work, including communicating with Russian VK users.
They don’t have illusions that their work alone will make Russians wake up and overthrow the Putin regime. But they see it as an important contribution to a broader information war – which Ukraine has so far been waging remarkably successfully.
The Fix spoke with Tamayo Flores and Moroz about the methods of their work, what they’ve already achieved, and what they hope to see next.
The interview was conducted in Ukrainian and translated into English. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Fix: Could you tell me about your work?
Veronica Tamayo Flores: I coordinate a volunteer community called IT#StandForUkraine. It includes over 1,000 people from different fields, mostly IT, marketing, creative spheres, and PR. We organise various projects aimed to end the war as soon as possible, as well as to help our civilian compatriots.
We work with different Ukrainian state agencies, from the Cyber Police and the General Staff of the Armed Forces to the State Security Service and the Ministry of Digital Transformation. We also cooperate with different volunteer organisations, with big businesses in Ukraine and abroad. We are trying to use all available resources to fight on the information front.
Both parts are actively using information technologies in this war, from propaganda and social media advertising to cyber attacks. So, we see an important mission in defending Ukraine in the information space. We wouldn’t be particularly useful in the field with guns, but we are very useful when it comes to coding or spreading information.
Our initiative exists from the first day of the war [February 24th], but some directions were added later. Oksana [Moroz] wasn’t with us from the very beginning, she was separately organising a group of people who would contact Russians on VK. We met online, joined our forces, and we are working together now.
Oksana Moroz: [I’m an expert in media and communications and a founder of a volunteer initiative aimed at information hygiene]. Since the war started, I have used my expertise to help the war effort. Since the first days, we found a way to buy bots on VK and started working with them, gathering people and crafting messages to inform Russians.
The Fix: How do you communicate with Russians VK users, what messages are you trying to convey?
Oksana Moroz: We’ve focused on VK because we assumed [Western social networks would get blocked in Russia] and because this platform has various influence tools.
We’ve tried many different ways of how to talk with Russian VK users. In the first days, everyone was doing the same thing – sending them photos of dead bodies, casualties, and so on. We quickly saw that it didn’t work, especially in the first days. (Although now we see that a bit more [Russian] people are interested in this topic – among the 50 people we contacted [on March 15th], three people lost husbands or sons in Ukraine, and they were grateful for the information because they didn’t know how to find their loved ones).
Through trial and error, we came to the block I call “the fridge” [financial and economic topics] which includes sanctions and changes which people can feel on themselves – or read in the media after we’ve sown doubts. We are sowing doubts, and people then can reinforce them by [reading other sources].
We have several segments we work with. We also have a “militaristic” segment, which includes relatives and friends of Russian occupying soldiers, whose accounts we’ve parsed from the accounts of the soldiers themselves; as well as people who are interested in or related to military topics.
Based on that, we are using different messages. Ordinary people get messages on a “fridge” level. The closer a person is to the military topics, the more information we send about [finding killed Russian soldiers and PoWs].
When it comes to messages, it’s important to note that all the calls for Russians to go out and protest have also failed. No one wants to hear or talk about protesting on the streets.
Veronica Tamayo Flores: Yes, the most effective messages indeed are related to the “fridge”, medications, all this stuff.
Oksana Moroz: Cars, planes, repair parts.
Veronica Tamayo Flores: For women, there are also effective calls like “Don’t let your men go to war”, “Mom, bring me back home.” But people’s own financial well-being works best.
The Fix: Do you work with [Russian] platforms other than VK?
Veronica Tamayo Flores: We also have a different team that writes to relatives of Russian soldiers on VK and Odnoklassniki. Based on two large leaks of Russian servicemen data, we managed to identify over 30,000 soldiers on social media and found 4-5 times as many of their potential relatives. We are contacting them now.
Also, we developed a tool that parses profiles on VK and finds men of conscription age and young men in general. Thanks to image recognition, it can be used to identify Russian soldiers or find members of subversive groups.
The Fix: Oksana, how many volunteers are involved in your team that works with VK?
Oksana Moroz: In the first days, when I posted the first call, I thought no more than 50 people would sign up. In the first 30 minutes, I was contacted by almost 300 people. It was a boom period that lasted for around 10 days.
Now we have a group with around 2,500 people, but the number of active volunteers is declining when compared to the drive of the first days of the war. In the beginning, we had 200-300 people working daily, sometimes up to 500-600. Now, this number is ten times lower – 50 active people during the day is a great figure these days. People went back to work, and there are other factors that reduce the effectiveness.
However, by now, we’ve already processed over 300,000 [Russian VK users], and we see that this work is starting to yield results. We see people contacting us and so on. So, on the one hand, [the decline in the number of active volunteers] is unfortunate, and we are looking for ways to automatise the work. On the other hand, the initial boom gave its first results.
The Fix: How do you divide work between people, what’s the coordination structure?
Oksana Moroz: We have a [Telegram] chat where we coordinate work. We have a volunteer who’s developed an automatisation mechanism and responds to technical questions. We also have a writer who prepares all texts, and we work with an analytical group of psychologists who help with the messages.
The daily process is the following: Everything starts in the evening. At 11pm, I get the messages recommended by the analysts. I review them and pass them along to the writer. The writer prepares new texts by 10am. Throughout the day, new people join the chat, they receive instructions on what the work looks like, they get VK accounts from me and Anna, who helps me with coordination, and they get to work.
Example of a dialogue led in direct messages by a Ukrainian volunteer. (Translated from Russian by The Fix)
The Fix: What are your success metrics? What tells you that you’ve succeeded, whether it’s with a specific person or overall?
Oksana Moroz: For me, it’s when a person has opened and read the message. Because we are yet another link in a chain [of a broader information war]. Psychologists estimate that you need to tell something to the person five times until they start to apperceive it. So, for me, when the person opens and reads the message, it’s already a result. When the person starts a dialogue, it’s a good result.
We are estimating how many people opened the message, and we’re at about a 50% open rate overall. So, overall the group I lead contacted 300,000 people, and around 50% of them saw the message.
Veronica Tamayo Flores: We also monitor what the local media is writing, and it’s a success when we’ve managed to raise a topic. So, for example, when we have a topic related to medications, telling people “Go buy medications, no one knows when they’ll be available again,” and someone [a local official] comments saying “We have plenty of supplies, no need to rush buying medications,” [it’s a success for us].
The Fix: What is the budget for your initiative? As I understand, you are buying bots [on VK]. Where does the money come from?
Oksana Moroz: When the war started, I got contacted by former colleagues, who know how to purchase quality bots; they fund this part. The expenses aren’t huge – I don’t think we’ve even spent $5,000 so far. Buying bots is the only expense [for my group].
The Fix: How many accounts have you bought so far?
Oksana Moroz: For my group, it’s 7,284 at the moment.
The Fix: Obviously, management at VK, which is a Russian government-controlled company, aren’t fans of your work. Have you seen any attempts to systematically clamp down on your work?
Veronica Tamayo Flores: It’s tough because you can’t trace a specific connection. We aren’t creating new accounts, so you can’t trace them by a particular location. Those are random accounts.
We are working subtly so we don’t attract suspicion. Our messages aren’t shocking, they are designed to start a conversation – such as “everything’s got twice as expensive, what do you think about that?”.
Oksana Moroz: Let’s take a step back and see how the information war is playing out. It’s the game both parts are playing. No one wastes time interfering with each other’s work. The question is who will be more professional here. The Russians have their own agenda, their own tools.
We’re more successful in the information war because the whole Ukrainian people have united to become a nation of hackers. Everyone is playing their role. Russia is trying to find out who is helping us, they can’t understand that millions of Ukrainians voluntarily fight on the information front against the Kremlin machine.
The Fix: What are your plans, what comes next? I mean, regarding the work with Russian social networks.
Oksana Moroz: We’ve started to expand our work to Belarus. We’re trying to resolve the problem of resources, expand our work on VK.
Veronica Tamayo Flores: I think it’s important to continue this work, and it’s strange that we hadn’t been doing it systematically in Ukraine since Russian aggression had started in 2014. We need to be more systematic, to take it to another level.
We tried to contact the Ministry of Digital Transformation about this work, but they have been reluctant in supporting us so far. They have an IT Army [a large community of volunteers], but it’s important for the ministry that these volunteers keep DDoSing Russian sites – though I’m not sure if DDoSing is all that useful. [Editor’s note: the interview was conducted on March 16th. The next day, IT#StandForUkraine and the Ministry of Digital Transformation agreed to cooperate].
A lot of journalists are focusing on cyberattacks like they are a panacea and like there’s nothing else interesting. I think the information war on social media is much more important, but hardly anyone is talking about that.
Everyone now gets tired because this work isn’t paid, and people are doing that in their free time. The drive is running out, and it’s understandable. We need to work more systematically, to create our media centers, our media outlets that would convey what’s really happening in Ukraine every day. It’s really important because the war will end, but then there will be a period of rebuilding, and there will be life after that. We can’t just make Russia disappear, it will keep being our neighbor. This won’t end when combat ends, so we need to keep working.