How Russian state media stoked fears online of Ukrainian aggression in the pivotal days before war

In the days leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian state media unleashed a flurry of articles online baselessly or misleadingly casting Ukrainians as aggressors and their government as a nuclear threat, according to an analysis shared with The Technology 202.

The findings shed light on the narratives Russian outfits sought to spread in the crucial days before the invasion — and before major platforms announced new measures intended to limit misinformation and disinformation by state-funded outlets.

According to researchers at Oxford University’s Programme on Democracy and Technology, state-funded and state-run Russian news outlets including RT and Sputnik peppered the web with articles portraying Ukraine as instigators in the conflict the week before the invasion, echoing a consistent theme of Russian information operations. 

But while certain narratives had long been a fixture of the messaging by Russian state media, others gained prominence during that pivotal stretch. That included postings raising the specter of the Ukrainian government reviving its nuclear arsenal.

“I think the most severe piece of disinformation is expressly around Ukraine’s nuclear ambitions,” Phil Howard, a professor of Internet studies at Oxford, told me.

The narrative resonated with recent claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine was seeking nuclear rearmament — charges the New York Times’ David Sanger dubbed a “conspiracy theory.”

Howard said messaging casting Ukrainian President  Volodymyr Zelensky in a disparaging light also gained prominence, marking a shift from a prior focus instead on claims of purported political instability in the country.

“The messaging, particularly from Russian state media sources, was broadly about mismanagement in Ukraine, or social inequality in Ukraine. … Now, it’s much more focused on … particularly ‘Zelensky as the clown, the buffoon who’s running his country into the ground.’ ”

Oxford researchers examined English-language articles by Russian state-media outlets, among others, that discussed key words related to the conflict and that were shared on social media roughly during the week before the invasion. They then analyzed the most relevant pieces. 

The analysis arrives as platforms like Facebook and YouTube face mounting pressure to ban Russian state media from their services altogether, as we reported Monday.

Several major tech companies have announced steps in recent days to restrict access to Russian state-media outlets such as RT or to cut off their access to digital advertising, as my colleague Cat Zakrzewski reported Saturday

The actions show how Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies are being forced to make thorny calls about who they will or will not allow on their services amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a series of recent major developments, Facebook parent company Meta, YouTube and TikTok moved to ban Russian state media outlets in the Europe Union, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Cat Zakrzewski and Gerrit De Vynck report.

The announcements came after European Union leaders announced plans for sanctions directly hitting Russian state-media outlets. The tech company and its peers continue to face pressure to ban the pages entirely, however, and to limit their access in the United States.

The U.S. State Department has called RT and Sputnik “critical elements in Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem,” and a slew of recent reports and studies have chronicled how the outlets have amplified Russian government talking points on Ukraine. 

It remains unclear how effective that messaging has been, however.

“It is very difficult to tell, to measure change in public opinion based on the presence of one of these misinformation stories,” Howard said of the Oxford analysis.

“But,” he added, “in a moment of crisis like this, messaging can go very, very far if it’s consistent and highlights one or two themes, which is what they’re doing at the moment.”

Ukrainians are using social media to humiliate the Russians

Videos are transforming stories of bravery into viral legends, exposing a war that Russia has fought to keep concealed, Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman report. All told, a flood of videos has blunted Kremlin propaganda and rallied the world, while Ukrainians rush to document the conflict and spread information about how people should defend themselves.

“The posts have highlighted Russia’s most embarrassing tactical and logistical errors, puncturing the nation’s carefully crafted image of military supremacy with videos of grungy vehicles and an inexperienced fighting force,” Drew and Rachel write. “In one video, a Ukrainian man ridicules Russian soldiers stranded after their tank ran out of fuel. In another, a tractor driver appeared to tow a Russian armored personnel carrier down the road.”

Senate Intel Chairman Warner praises tech companies for combating Russian propaganda

“Virtually every one of these platforms has taken down some of the Russian activity or demonetized so they’re not making money off RT or Russian ads… That’s good, I commend these platforms, but the truth is… I shouldn’t have to rely on their good will. We need some rules of the road on social media.“ – Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) (Washington Post Live)

But Congress shouldn’t have to rely on the tech companies to take action on their own and needs “some rules of the road on social media,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said at a Washington Post Live event. In recent days, the companies have announced a flurry of actions designed to limit the power of outlets such as RT and Sputnik. Warner pointed to these as “good” steps.

Over the past 24 hours alone:

  • Facebook, YouTube and TikTok shut down access to RT and Sputnik in the European Union.
  • Microsoft announced that it is banning ads from RT and Sputnik, removing RT’s apps from its app store and will be “further de-ranking these sites’ search results” on its Bing search engine.
  • Twitter is labeling tweets that link to designated Russian state-affiliated media websites.

Those moves came just one day after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the E.U. was banning RT and Sputnik so they would “no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union,” Elizabeth Dwoskin and Cat Zakrzewski report. Twitter didn’t respond to their requests for comment on whether they would also ban the outlets in Europe.

Meanwhile, governments and regulators continue to scrutinize the outlets. U.K. broadcast regulator Ofcom has opened 15 investigations into its Ukraine coverage, the Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports. “British broadcasting rules allow politically biased coverage providing the output still meets the standards of ‘due impartiality’ — meaning viewers are still exposed to alternative viewpoints,” Waterson writes. The regulator could force RT’s U.K. television channel to go off the air.

Netflix won’t comply with Russian rule forcing it to broadcast pro-Kremlin stations

Netflix doesn’t plan to leave Russia, where it is trying to expand its foothold, the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Flint reports. The regulation requiring Netflix to add streams of 20 Russian stations was set to go into effect today, Politico Europe previously reported. The rule applies to streaming services with at least 100,000 daily users, the Moscow Times reported.

“Given the current situation, we have no plans to add these channels to our service,” a Netflix spokesman told the Journal. Russia’s communications regulator ordered the company to add channels including the Russian Orthodox Church’s Spas channel and the Kremlin-linked Channel One. 

Facebook’s decision to block RT and Sputnik in the European Union was met with applause, criticism and commentary. Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul:

Actress and author Valerie Bertinelli:

Barrister and writer Rupert Myers:

  • Christine Bannan has joined ProtonMail, where she will lead U.S. public policy efforts. Bannan previously worked as policy counsel at New America’s Open Technology Institute.
  • The House Small Business Committee holds a hearing on small businesses and antitrust today at 10 a.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on legislation targeting Big Tech today at 10:30 a.m.
  • Acting White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director Alondra Nelson and others speak at the Social Science Research Council’s launch of its Just Tech platform today at 1 p.m.
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute hosts an event on the next steps on consumer cybersecurity and privacy labels for connected devices today at 2 p.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee is set to vote on President Biden’s nominations of Gigi Sohn and Alvaro Bedoya as FCC and FTC commissioners on Thursday at 10 a.m.

Thats all for today — thank you so much for joining us! Make sure to tell others to subscribe to The Technology 202 here. Get in touch with tips, feedback or greetings on Twitter or email