I messaged 100 pro-Russia commenters to see if they were bots - here’s what they said

I messaged 100 pro-Russia commenters to see if they were bots - here’s what they said

4 months ago

An information war is being waged in the comments across Instagram 

“Stop posting such nonsense. I live in Russia. We are not bombing Ukraine and we are not going to do it in the future. Where do you get such photos? You shameless b*****ds.” 

This is a real comment on a major news organisation’s Instagram after they posted a video of a missile strike in Ukraine. And there are plenty more like them. An information war is being waged in the comments across social media, where phrases like “Glory to Russia” and “Putin is king” are common, flanked by lions and Russian flag emojis.

Amid pictures of the horrors of the war in Ukraine are ugly attempts to delegitimise it - hundreds of comments denouncing the violence as fake, or claiming Ukraine has “done it to itself”, like the social media equivalent of scrawling nasty tags on a street mural. The tone of the comments points to two possible sources: people who have well and truly swallowed the Kremlin’s Kool-Aid, or alternatively, a hell of a lot of bots. 

To be clear, bot aren't inherently bad. “A bot is simply a programme that sends information following a certain formula,” says Dr Harith Alani, who is Deputy Director of the Knowledge Media Institute, and an expert on bots and disinformation. “So for example, you might have a bot that sends reminders on regular occasions,” - like the sassy Twitter bot that reminds you to drink water - “Some of the bots are mundane, and some of them are for a good cause, like sharing information about COVID and getting your vaccine.”

Bad bots are the ones that have been weaponised

“Bad bots”, Dr Alani explains, are the ones tasked with spreading lies across social media in the hope of altering people’s opinions. “These ones have been weaponised to spread misinformation, disinformation, and false claims about world crises,” he says.

Bots are programmed by a real person but after that, they’re just a machine whirring away in some distant location. Bot farms are essentially just buildings that contain computers, servers, sim cards, and other equipment. Ukrainian security services have already shut down five Russian bot farms since the start of the invasion. Russia has a long history of spreading propaganda, says Dr Alani. “Bots are ideal for that because you can then send that message out en masse. That's why we see a lot of them coming from Russia.”

But are these bad bots responsible for all the misinformation posts on Instagram or are there really legions of Putin supporters stalking the internet? I slid into 100 of their DMs to find out.

Finding them was the easy part. I spent two hours trawling the comment section of Ukraine news stories on Instagram, looking for responses like: “fake news, Russia will win”, or “Ukraine are real Nazis!!!”. 

There are some classic signs I discovered to aid future bot-spotting - posts tend to come from accounts with minimal followers, a selection of random posts and no visible link to Russia on their profile (to cover their tracks). They’re predictable, stick to a routine, and they’re always on time. This can also be their giveaway. “A bot will send 10 messages in a matter of 10 seconds. Because a programme can do that, a human can't,” says Dr Alani. This pattern can also be randomised to make bots less detectable, but there are a few things they can’t do: say, respond like an actual human, or answer captchas. This is where I come in.

“Hey, are you real?” is the message I sent to 100 pro-Russian commenters, aiming to test their legitimacy. I got 25 responses.

“Yes, I’m real”, “What do you mean”, and “I don’t understand,” are the replies which featured most frequently. For an extra layer of protection, I asked a few of my new pro-Russian pen pals to answer a classic “select the images which include a bus” captcha to prove their sentience. Many ignored me, some told me to fuck off, but all the ones who answered got them correct. So out of my small test sample, I had successfully filtered out the bots from the real people.

Next, to find out why they were spreading lies about the war in Ukraine.

Valeria, who is from Siberia in Russia, claims she posted her comments because she believes Ukraine is not blameless in the conflict. She referenced a recent attack in the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine, which killed 20 civilians, and claimed it was Ukrainians attacking their own city. “I know one girl who’s from Donetsk. And today Donetsk was attacked by military forces of Ukraine again. Did you hear? I want her to live in peace too. Does anyone who is normal want war?”. 

Ukrainian authorities say there is no truth whatsoever this claim made by the Kremlin. It's a common line used in Russian propaganda, according to Dr Alani. “Russia claim that Ukraine is bombing their own hospitals and schools, and these claims start to gather traction.” He explains: “This will have an impact on people’s perception of what’s really happening, and democracy as a whole.” 

Maybe they're the perfect example of propaganda done right - taken twice a day with food

But the problem is that it isn’t just one story. “So maybe people can’t point to just one story, but that sort of information is circulating around and they get exposed to it [...] That’s a lot harder to fix.” 

Ashutosh, another pro-Russian commenter, has absorbed this misinformation - he thinks Russia was “forced” to invade Ukraine. “If you asked me whether to pick Western countries versus Russia, I would pick Russia.” He thinks the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (a military alliance between 30 member states, including the US and UK) instigated the war because it wants to suppress Russia and China, due to them “growing too fast” for its liking. “Russia was forced [to invade Ukraine] and they had warned them first,” he said, “they were forced to make their hands dirty.” 

Wrong, Ashutosh! Putin didn't give any warning for his February 24 invasion. As the Russian-born American author and academic, Keith Gessen, wrote in early March in the Guardian: “This war was the decision of one person and one person only – Vladimir Putin. He made the call in his covid isolation, failed to mount any sort of campaign to garner public support, and barely spoke to anyone outside the tiniest inner circle about it, which is why just a few weeks before the invasion no one in Moscow thought it was going to happen. “

Some of the wilder responses I received included: “I believe Russia is doing a good deed in Ukraine,” and “I admired Putin, I support him, great personality.” These could well be trolls, or it could be a language barrier, or maybe they’re the perfect example of propaganda done right - taken twice a day with food. But I’ll never know because they stopped responding. 

Credit: Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

There was one sentiment echoed throughout multiple responses though - a hatred for pro-Western propaganda. One commenter, Massamba, raised the point of “Western hypocrisy”, arguing that it was “sickening and intolerable”. “Where was the outrage when [Putin] first invaded Crimea or the Chechens?” he asks, “Why are we deaf and silent when it comes to other plagues around the world where other nations are doing worse than what Russia is doing?” He referenced events in Palestine, Yemen and Iraq as a backup for his stance.

Other crises may not have been afforded the same treatment as Ukraine, particularly in terms of the willingness to accept refugees - but it benefits Russia’s agenda to critique the West, with the aim of destabilising it entirely. In 2014, journalist Joshua Yaffa, who is the New Yorker’s Moscow correspondent, had already identified that Russia is very experienced at “implying or inventing dark suspicions about Western motives in Ukraine while painting Russia's own meddling as a heroic answer to the call of justice.” This harks back to the “Russia is doing a good deed in Ukraine” explanation I received. 

In an ironic twist of fate, human efforts might not be enough to help

The way of drawing a line between authentic criticism of the West and propaganda, in this case, is seeing whether the person agrees with Russia’s part in Ukraine or not. If the answer is yes: chances are they’re a cog in the misinformation machine, or have their own axe to grind against the West, and if it’s no, like Massamba eventually revealed to me: then they may just be expressing their own opinion. 

However, not everyone has time to message and interact with 100 pro-Russian commenters in order to work out what’s real and what’s not. Yet Dr Alani is adamant that things are looking up: “We were initially tracking disinformation around Covid, but started doing it for the Russia-Ukraine war, and we started to see different dynamics. With Covid, there was a far wider spread of misinformation and a limited scale of fact-checking information.” 

This ‘fact-checking information’ could be the response of an independent fact-checker like the Politifact website, a real person calling out fake news, or an article that is detailing the actual story.

“But with Ukraine, we started to see the opposite. We now see a far wider spread of the fact checks and not so much of the misinformation.” And that’s where you, and other individuals, come in if they want to help. “We need to think about how we boost the spread of good information,” Dr Alani says. But in an ironic twist of fate, humans might not even be enough: “We might need bots for that too,” he laughs.

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