Pro-Russian tweets in India raise suspicion of influence campaign

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In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Twitter accounts shared messages of support for Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president.

They tried to deflect criticism of the war by comparing it to conflicts fomented by Western countries. Their comment — along with tweets from other users who condemned it — made the hashtag #IStandWithPutin trending on Twitter in several parts of the world.

While some of the accounts said they were based in Nigeria and South Africa, the majority of those with a declared location on Twitter claimed to be from India and targeted their posts to other Indian users, said researchers.

The prevalence of accounts claiming to be from Indian users indicates that India’s social media landscape has become an important destination in efforts to influence public opinion on the war in Ukraine. Users who said they were from India accounted for almost 11% of trending hashtags in the two weeks following the invasion. Only 0.3% came from Russia and 1.6% from the United States during this period.

Some of the accounts used fake profile pictures, which raised the researchers’ suspicions. Others racked up thousands of retweets on their pro-Putin posts, despite having few followers and low engagement on the rest of their tweets.

Although the activity suggested that the accounts may be inauthentic, there was no hard evidence that they were part of a coordinated influence campaign aimed at changing sentiment about the war in India. A Twitter spokeswoman said the company is still investigating.

The challenge of identifying influencer campaigns is further complicated by the division of public opinion in India. While some people vehemently opposed the war, others vigorously supported Russia and staged marches to show their support.

“Russia and India have a deep and long-standing economic and security relationship,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “If you are Russia and you are facing increased global surveillance, increased global shutdown, you are counting on countries like India to at least refrain from as much effort to isolate Russia as it is humanly possible.”

The death of an Indian student in the fighting in Ukraine this month has highlighted India’s challenge to evacuating nearly 20,000 of its citizens who were in the country when the Russian invasion began. Hundreds of Indian students were stuck amid heavy shelling at the time. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has avoided condemning Russia, appealed for help to Mr Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The local Russian Embassy used Twitter to educate indian media not to use the word “war”, but rather to refer to it as a “special military operation”, as the media in Russia have been compelled by law to do. Some Indian Twitter users responded by mocking the embassy, ​​while others chastised local media as incompetent and in need of instructions from Russia.

Pro-Russian sentiment has taken hold in right-wing circles in the United States, disinformation spreading in Russia claims that Ukrainians staged bombings or bombed their own neighborhoods, and myths about the Ukrainian courage have gone viral on social media platforms. But in India and other countries where social media users have joined the hashtag, pro-Russian narratives have focused on ethnonationalism and Western hypocrisy in the face of war, themes that have resonated with social media users.

“There were dense groups of communities participating, many of them based in India or Pakistan,” said Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies and digital humanities at Hamad University. Bin Khalifa, who analyzed the accounts using #IStandWithPutin.

It was unclear whether the accounts promoting pro-Putin messages in India were genuine, although Dr Jones said some of the most popular engaged in suspicious behavior, such as using stock photos as images profile or accumulate likes and retweets despite having few followers. .

The pro-Russian posts were also amplified by Twitter users claiming to reside in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. While some promoted pro-Russian hashtags, others cited examples of what they called Western hypocrisy, such as former President Donald J. Trump’s praise of Mr. Putin.

After Dr Jones published his findings, Twitter suspended more than 100 accounts that were pushing #IStandWithPutin for “coordinated inauthentic behavior”. A Twitter spokeswoman said they were spammers trying to commandeer conversations about the conflict.

“Since the start of the war in Ukraine, we have removed over 75,000 accounts for violating our platform manipulation and spamming policy,” Sinéad McSweeney, vice president of global policy at Twitter, said in a statement. . blog post this month. “These accounts represent a wide range of attempts to manipulate the service – including financially motivated opportunistic spam – and we do not believe they currently represent a specific, coordinated campaign associated with any government actor.”

But some of the accounts in India most likely belonged to real people, Dr Jones said. “If you can get enough people to spread a message, then real people will join you,” he said. “It becomes difficult to sort out the organic behavior from the inorganic because it’s a mesh.”

In India, some right-wing groups have made similar messages. An organization called Hindu Sena marched in favor of Russia this month in the heart of the Indian capital. Carrying Russian flags commissioned for the occasion as well as saffron flags often flown by Hindu nationalists, the participants were led by the group’s chairman, Vishnu Gupta.

More than 300 activists chanted: “Russia continues to fight, we are with you” and “Long live the friendship of India and Russia”.

“Russia has always stood with India and is its best friend. While America supports Pakistan and does not want an Asian power to rise,” Gupta said in an interview. “We don’t believe in war. But now that it’s happening, India must follow Russia. We must clarify our position.”

The Russian Embassy in India has also used Twitter and Facebook to promote conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine and to pressure Indian media.

“A lot of influencers who tend to align themselves with Modi see at least some amount of common cause or some of their own views embraced by Putin’s brand of ethnonationalism,” Mr Brookie said.

Facebook said it was working with local partners in India to verify information on its platform.

India’s leaders navigated a delicate balancing act between Russia, its biggest arms supplier, and Ukraine by abstaining from voting against Russia at the United Nations. India has also sent medical supplies to Ukraine. It is looking for ways to maintain its trade relationship with Russia despite the sanctions imposed on it by many Western countries.

But public opinion about the war could pressure local politicians to pick a side, experts said.

“This is a major flashpoint for truly global competition for information,” Brookie said. “It’s an inflection point where a number of countries – not just Russia but the United States, its allies and partners, as well as China – are positioning themselves.”

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