How to become a weapon in the hands of the enemy in the info space | Author Otar Dovzhenko

If you are scared or in euphoria, cannot stop reading the news and spreading messages, you are a target for information special operations of the aggressor. 

War takes place not only on land, on water and in the air, but also in information space. Fortunately, the Ukrainian information space has been largely cleared of media belonging to the aggressor or promoting his messages over the past eight years, and could be a direct-acting weapon that would hit Ukrainians in the head. If you’ve looked in the Russian media for the last few days or seen excerpts from their TV shows, you know what they’re talking about.

But this does not mean that Russia is not attacking in the Ukrainian information space. The main bridgehead of the information offensive is not on TV, where the official Ukrainian point of view dominates, but on the Internet, in particular on social networks. A recent sociological research has shown  that social networks are the main source of news for 44% of Ukrainians, and during the war, when all the attention is focused on the news and it is in social networks that they appear the fastest, this percentage probably increased. The enemy can spread misinformation and manipulative appeals on social networks almost without hindrance. Therefore, the main information special operations of the Russians are now unfolding on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram and other platforms used by Ukrainians.

Frightened, emotionally exhausted, disoriented people are the first easiest target for the information special operation. The second are those who are in euphoria, over-excited and overwhelmed by desire to do anything just to feel involved in the defense of the Motherland. Both can be used by enemy to achieve their goals. What are these goals? Here are some of them.

To sow chaos and panic. Remember New Sanjari in spring 2020, when locals, frightened by the prospect of coronavirus and  deliberately screwed up in Viber chats, jumped on buses with Ukrainians evacuated from Wuhan? Imagine the devastating effect of panic now, when real fighting continues in many regions of Ukraine. The enemy can create traffic jams on military roads; send a crowd of frightened civilians to the positions of the Ukrainian army through a fictitious “green corridor”; even incite civilians to resist our military, as it was in Donbas in 2014.

During the war, the main thing is done by the military — trained professionals with weapons, complete information about what is happening and planned, and special communications. Civilians can help them, but more importantly, they do not interfere, they listen to and do whatever the military administration and its co-ordinated authorities say. Curfew means curfew and we don’t go outside. Go to shelter — so go to shelter. And so on. When civilians stop obeying the authorities and the military and start doing things on their own, any tasks of the army become very difficult — to the delight of the enemy.

To gather information. For example, to force Ukrainians take photos of military equipment and publish it on social networks under some stupid fictional excuse. An average Ukrainian is unlikely to be able to distinguish the Ukrainian Armored personnel carrier from the Russian one. Or ask the locals how it is best to get to Kyiv with “humanitarian aid” — they will tell you better than any Google maps. And the tanks will follow the suggested route.

Misinform and divert resources — for example, accusing the Ukrainian military of false reports about the location of Russian troops. Mass “mines” that took place in Ukrainian cities before the invasion can be considered a test of this technology. Of course, the army does not attack only after receiving a call or message, but must pay attention to such information, check it — it takes precious resources.

Unfortunately, it is relatively easy to turn Ukrainians into fake distributors — it is enough to pack a fake in an attractive wrapper, put a few exclamation marks at the beginning, write a “maximum repost” and post it on Facebook and Viber chats. Our national propensity for crowd-sourcing, or toloki, immediately begins to work.  Older people who have mastered a smartphone but still do not understand that not everything on the Internet is true are especially easily exposed to such manipulations.

To intimidate and break the fighting spirit. Participants of the Revolution of Dignity must remember how in the fateful days social networks were filled with messages in the spirit of “Maidan was merged, everyone can disperse”. Some of them were distributed by bots, but “useful idiots” also joined. If you bombard people’s minds with the message “all is lost” and “all in vain”, it can happen. If you inspire fear — for example, scarecrows like «the Kadyrovites» who, they say, are going to cut off the heads of Ukrainians — can make people focus on basic needs for security and survival. And bring them to a state where they will agree to everything the enemy needs.

To direct activity in a meaningless direction. For example, to spam everyone with a petition to overturn the flag or bake a record loaf for the glory of Ukraine, so that the whole world could see our greatness. By themselves, such actions do not cause much harm, but create information noise and interfere with the work of people who are professionally engaged in information security, diplomacy, volunteer assistance, etc. It is good for enemy to keep our meaningful communications as productive as possible.

The enemy can have many more methods of manipulation and secret targets, and no one is safe from falling into the trap. But here are some tips that can help reduce the risk.

Do you consider yourself a soldier of the information front? Find a “commander”. This is exactly the situation when one in the field is not a warrior. If thousands of Twitter users promote each of their hashtags in support of Ukraine, it will not be a Twitter storm, but a senseless chaos. The real “information front” acts in a coordinated manner and performs tasks agreed with the military leadership. Find an organization that works professionally and systematically in one of the areas of information resistance — it may need volunteers. Or you will be told where to turn so that your energy can be directed in a productive direction.

Do not distribute. Better a poor horse than no horse at all. The absence of your reposts will not be a big loss, but you certainly will not become an involuntary distributor of fakes. But definitely do not distribute messages whose authors and sources you do not know personally. Even if they seem very plausible and correct. If you make a call to action, follow the original source and delete your post immediately if the message is found to be in doubt.

Do not follow anyone’s instructions and advice, except those published on the official pages of the military leadership of the state or public authorities, or those that are broadcast on “Ukrainian Radio” or other official channels. If you see messages with links to official sources, but on other platforms — check the original source.

Do not engage in any social conflicts or harassment campaigns initiated by people unknown to you. One of the Russia’s main tasks is to divide Ukrainians and make them fight each other when they need to beat the enemy together.

Do not invent or spread patriotic fakes “to maintain the fighting spirit”. This may seem like a good idea, but it’s not. A huge number of false reports, “urban legends”, refutation of previously disseminated information lead the society to the point that it no longer accepts any information, even from official sources.

Do not open questionable letters and messages from unknown senders. A viral attack during the war is very likely. It may seem to you that no one needs your smartphone or computer in person, because you are not a public person. But this is not the case: if you are affected by a virus attack, your gadget may become a network that spreads the attack further.

Do not leave your personal data anywhere — online questionnaires, petitions and other forms asking you to enter information about yourself are especially dangerous during the war. It is better that your signature will not be under the next petition “to ban Putin”, than information about you will get into a hostile database.

Remove Viber — or at least stop reading groups that share unverified information. Crowded un-moderated chats, where anyone can be added are the area of special danger.

Do not respond to mass texting or instant messaging, even if the sender is allegedly a serious organization or authority. Everything important that the government has to say, it will say through official notification channels and its verified pages on social networks .

When someone tells you exciting, horrible, disturbing news, ask about the source. And don’t be lazy to check if this source really has such news. If not, persuade the other person not to share this information.

Take breaks in the consumption of information, especially in its dissemination. Minutes spent on household chores, volunteering, personal communication with family and friends are more useful than minutes of flipping through the news feed, which brings you destructive emotions. If you see the message that “everything is gone”, the government has merged everyone, Ukraine has capitulated, the Ukrainian military has surrendered its weapons, the president has resigned or something — it’s a fake. It is impossible — Ukraine is fighting for its future and will never give up. Don’t give up either.

This material was produced within the framework of the project “Western Ukrainian Media Network for Counteracting Misinformation” with the support of the Lviv Media Forum and the Analytical Center of Communication Research Networks.

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