Social media is a critical domain of ‘information warfare’, where states seek to advance their interests by shaping the views of their own citizens or those of other nations. A new study tracks activity in this domain at the start of Russia’s invasion.
Bridget Smart and colleagues obtained all tweets sent between February 23rd and March 8th containing the following hashtags: #(I)StandWithPutin, #(I)StandWithRussia, #(I)SupportRussia, #(I)StandWithUkraine, #(I)StandWithZelenskyy and #(I)SupportUkraine.
These hashtags were chosen as they were the most commonly trending hashtags that could be reliably identified with one or other side. If a particular tweet contained a pro-Russian hashtag and a pro-Ukrainian one, it was labelled ‘balanced’. Only English-language tweets were included.
The authors’ main finding is shown in the chart below. In short, the overwhelming majority of tweets (90%) were pro-Ukrainian, whereas only a small percentage were pro-Russian (6.8%).
Now, you might say this is not surprising, as most people in the West support Ukraine and very few support Russia. However, it provides evidence against the commonly heard claim that Russian troll farms exert large sway over public opinion.
An important caveat is that over 100 pro-Russian accounts were banned on March 4th, which partly explains the lack of pro-Russian tweets. However, it’s clear that even before these accounts were banned, the overwhelming majority of tweets were pro-Ukrainian.
Smart and colleagues used the Botometer tool to identify bots, and concluded that about 70% of tweets in their dataset were sent by bots (with the percentage being similar for pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian tweets).