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Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a wave of information politics to sway public opinion through the digital space. While Ukraine may have the footage of an ongoing invasion to prove its moral high ground, Russian Misinformation, Disinformation, and Malinformation (MDM) efforts across social media, as well as its continued reliance on compassion fatigue, cannot be discounted.
The Digital Backdrop
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has set new precedents and pushed existing boundaries in all realms. It is being called the first commercial space war, the first full-scale drone war, and the first AI war. The invasion is unfolding amidst a status quo where a large majority of people receive breaking news through passive scrolling. Actors in both Russia and Ukraine have found ways to sway public opinion as the battle to shape the war’s historical narrative continues.
While the basis of traditional battle remains the same in the twenty-first century, many of the principal components of war now have a digital foundation to them. For example, intelligence on Russian troops’ border movements and military plans was leaked and trending on social media right before Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the full-scale invasion. To this day, Ukrainian civilians resisting occupation can inform their army about Russian movements through social media and specially designed apps. Geo and chrono-located smartphone footage of military aggression under occupation can now spread through social media and even serve as evidence in international tribunals.
Yet nowhere is the digital battlespace more prevalent than in the war of information. Both Russia and Ukraine have used every tool available to them and employed distinct tactics to shape public perceptions as the war continues.
Ukraine’s Reality of War
The first hundred days of war are crucial. In early 2022, as the public reeled from the biggest armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War, there was no better time for Ukraine to act.  For Ukrainians, this involved sharing the reality of a population fighting occupation — including the parts that are hardest to stomach.
The Bucha massacre in March of 2022 yielded footage of mass graves, destruction, and a viral photo of the lifeless, red-manicured hand of a young woman that took social media and news outlets alike by storm. The undeniable horror of the massacre and the resulting public outcry appealed to Western leaders’ moral obligation to help Ukraine withstand Russian aggression.
As the war continues and almost  two years pass since the massacre, Ukrainians continue to showcase the human side of the war in an effort to keep onlookers engaged with their cause. They are doing this in two main ways. The first is through continued on-ground footage. Ukrainian stories involving the live footage of families being separated and civilians taking up arms have allowed the average user to connect and empathize with their struggle.
The second instance primarily involves forming long-term bonds with an international audience across social media. Using short-form media platforms like TikTok to their advantage, Ukrainian content creators have been able to form parasocial bonds and raise awareness with their followers, to the point where supporting Ukraine becomes akin to supporting a friend. This has usually taken the shape of satiric takes on the Russian leadership or connecting with followers about a shared hobby. Such interactions remain a part of a bigger process to combat desensitization toward Ukrainian suffering as the war drags on.
Social Media Dynamics and Misinformation: Enter Compassion Fatigue
Seeing the daily realities of war has led to a sentiment of guilt on social media that perpetuates mass posting. Many feel pressure to raise awareness and share posts about ongoing conflicts as a salient form of activism. While this may have helped put Western public opinion in Ukraine’s court from the outset, mass posting has not always worked in Ukraine’s favor.
The speed of online updates born from millions of users and the scale of Russian aggression have pushed mainstream media outlets to rush and break stories that compete with the current pace of social media cycles before they have finished developing. This has undermined the value of legitimate open-source investigations being carried out to debunk Russian claims and unintentionally helped propagate misinformation that ultimately aids the Kremlin.
Moreover, as other pressing conflicts continue to unfold in the world and ordinary citizens are confronted by their own problems, attention is bound to be diverted elsewhere. This manifests itself in a form of compassion fatigue (dubbed ‘Ukraine Fatigue’), where users become weary of the Ukrainian struggle for freedom on social media. It is under these conditions that the Russian capabilities in the information war begin to thrive.
Russia and the (Anti) West Sentiments
 As compassion fatigue sets in, Russian disinformation against Ukraine can permeate social media spaces more effectively. One of Russia’s most successful information tactics on global public opinion about the war in Ukraine is a particular brand of malinformation that simply draws attention to Western faults.
A tried and tested tool in the Russian arsenal since the Soviet era, malinformation refers to information that stems from the truth, yet is used intentionally in a way that misleads and actively causes harm. As Western governments have repeatedly expressed their commitment to help Ukraine withstand Russian aggression, the Kremlin has benefited from pointing out fraught Western history and its ongoing political blunders.
Despite currently engaging in an active occupation, Russia has incited anti-Western sympathy and used it to gain ground through social media — particularly in countries that suffered from Western colonization, such as those in Africa and across Latin America. By reminding citizens of this painful history and stoking renewed anger against Western responses to current events, Russia continues to fuel a mistrust of Western narratives on social media.
As the world becomes more polarized and the Russian invasion continues, anger towards Western governments can play a pivotal role in shaping the narrative of this conflict. Arguments surrounding double standards and hypocrisy have inflamed Ukraine fatigue, distract from Ukrainian plight, and can further shift the way social media users engage with this conflict. Such deflection is not an uncommon tactic for occupying powers, made even more possible now through artificial intelligence (AI).
AI for War
The speed with which AI has evolved since early 2022 means that further attempts to spread disinformation are growing more competent. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the first conflicts where AI has been harnessed to push an alarming amount of disinformation.
Russia has increasingly incorporated deepfakes and AI into its traditional disinformation campaigns against Ukraine. Fabricated recordings of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky surrendering as well as Russian troops celebrating and talking about their victory plans have been published on Telegram — a popular messaging app where many Ukrainians get their daily news — spreading panic and damaging morale. Doctored images with fascist symbolism directed toward Ukrainians have also been used to show them as “unsympathetic victims” to dehumanize the enemy and justify aggression.
The presence of AI in manufacturing evidence to rationalize aggression in these spaces of conflict has become all too prevalent and must be counteracted. AI’s potential to set a precedent of jumping into gratuitous aggression or lending credence to an occupying power during a conflict can set a deeply alarming precedent.
Moving Forward
The continuous information maelstrom surrounding Ukraine presents a valuable case study for how the realities of war shape public opinion. It has also demonstrated how state-sponsored misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation can fuel distrust and compassion fatigue for occupied countries. Russia relies on wearing the enemy out in every form of combat. Their MDM strategies, intent on lowering morale for Ukraine and spreading apathy towards the conflict, will likely aid in calls for political solutions that would freeze the present conflict — something that has consistently favored Russian strategic aims.
As our world becomes more polarized, the contemporary shaping of the Russia-Ukraine narrative on social media will set the tone for future grounds of information warfare. Policy should focus on combating MDM by collaborating with digital platforms and hosting transparent discussions surrounding information warfare, the verification of online sources, and the promotion of digital literacy across social media. As tensions ramp up globally and information warfare continues in ways both predictable and nefarious, this increasing urgency must galvanize meaningful policy that roots out AI manipulation  and centers ongoing dialogue for such conflicts around principles of compassion, aid, and humanity.

Magdalene Karalis is an Academy Associate with the Russia-Eurasia Program at Chatham House. Her research specializes in disinformation in the digital battlespace, the benefits and pitfalls of online investigations, and the growing ways in which social media and its resulting technology play a defining role in violent conflicts.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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