René has nothing to do with the invasion of Ukraine. The 34-year-old lives more than 1,000 km away in Nuremberg, Germany. He has no family there, and he’s never been to the country. But when Russia invaded, he wanted to help. So on the dating app Tinder, he changed his location to Moscow and started talking to women there about the war.
“I had a conversation with a girl who said [the invasion] is only a military operation and the Ukrainians are killing their own people and stuff like that, so I got into an argument with her,” says René, who asks not to share his surname because he doesn’t want his clients to know about his activism. “I also had some reactions like, ‘Thank you for telling us.’”
Since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, Russians have existed behind a wall of propaganda that protects them from the details of what is happening on the ground. Russia's state media calls the invasion a “special military operation,” never a war. Troops are pictured handing out aid, not blowing up buildings. According to official pollsters, the Kremlin’s narrative is sticking. Support for sending troops into Ukraine is high, lingering at around 70 percent. Although it’s unclear how reliable those numbers are, the New York Times reported anecdotal evidence that even Russians with Ukrainian relatives believe only military infrastructure is being targeted in “precision” strikes and that images showing violence against civilians are fake.
But an idea is gaining traction online: If Russians learn the truth about Ukraine, they might rise up and oust the war’s architect, President Vladimir Putin. In the past week, people have been testing that theory by sending messages to ordinary Russians through reviews on Tinder and Google Maps, and under state-sponsored posts on Facebook before the platform was blocked in Russia last week.
Reaching out to Russians siloed online was a tactic initiated by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky the night of February 23, when he posted a selfie video in Russian. “You are told this flame [war] will bring freedom to the Ukrainian people, but the people of Ukraine are already free,” he said. Then, early in the invasion, a volunteer army of hackers was drafted to Ukraine’s defense. But now even ordinary internet users are finding a role in war, using the social media platforms the Kremlin has not yet blocked. “Hello Russian people,” wrote one woman under a Facebook post by Russian news agency TASS last week. “Since the Kremlin influences all information, we from Germany want to inform you that a terrible war is going on in Ukraine provoked by Putin.”
“Reaching Russians within Russia is really, really hard for anyone because the Russian state maintains such tight control over their media environment,” says Laura Edelson, a computer scientist studying misinformation at New York University. She says the Russian state has been very effective at creating a shared set of beliefs: that the Ukrainian government is full of Nazis who are committing war atrocities. “What you want to do is chip away at that false narrative,” she says.
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That is what René says he is trying to do on Tinder, one of the few social media platforms the West still shares with Russia. To kick off his Tinder campaign, he asked a Russian friend to translate some text urging people still living in the country to “speak out” against the war so he could use it as his profile picture on the app. After he shared the text he was using on Twitter, he noticed other people were also adopting the idea.
One of them was Jens Osterloh, a 54-year-old working in IT and living in Luxembourg. On March 3, he started changing his Tinder location to eastern cities in Russia, like Vladivostok. He exchanged messages with around 10 women, asking them what they knew about Ukraine. Around six wrote back saying that they knew what was going on but couldn’t do anything about it, he says. Another four argued that Americans had also been involved in wars, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, Osterloh claims he would respond: “Do you really think because Americans did something wrong in the past it justifies that now Russians are killing Ukrainians?” The conversation would usually stop there, he says.
Tech sites are uneasy about allowing their services to be used as vehicles to counter Russian propaganda. Osterloh received a permanent ban from Tinder on Monday, just four days after he started messaging Russian women. He wrote to Tinder’s customer support, saying he was just trying to get some information into Russia and that this is an exceptional situation. Those pleas went unanswered. Tinder did not reply to WIRED’s request to comment.
The dating app would not be the first platform to ban attempts to counter Russian propaganda.
“Find a random shop/ cafe/ restaurant in Russia in [a] big city on google maps and write in the review what’s really happening in Ukraine,” a Twitter user with the handle @Konrad03249040 said on February 28, adding later “I'm not a hacker but i'm doing what i can do.” That post started a trend, especially after it was shared by the hacker collective Anonymous. “Your government is lying to you about the conflict in Ukraine,” wrote a user called “stop war” in the comments for a Moscow restaurant called Grand Cafe Dr Jhivago. “It's not a rescue operation, there are no nazis there!”
Google Maps responded by temporarily blocking new reviews for sites in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. The reviews system on Maps was not designed to help people communicate about the war in Ukraine, Google told WIRED, adding that it was not possible to ensure high-quality information in this scenario.
These efforts are random and small-scale, the digital equivalent of air-dropping leaflets and hoping the information will make an impact. But people affiliated with the Ukrainian government are trying to chip away at pro-Kremlin propaganda by reaching out to Russians en masse and leveraging two of the country’s most popular platforms, Telegram and YouTube.
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On February 27, a website launched called 200rf Look For Yours, which claims to help Russians find out whether their loved ones have been captured or killed in the fighting. The name refers to the Soviet military code word, Cargo-200, used for flying corpses back from Afghanistan in the 1980s. It posts a stream of images showing Russian soldiers dead or in captivity, and then the footage is distributed between YouTube, where the videos of captured Russian soldiers are posted, and a Telegram channel, where the more gruesome pictures end up. The Telegram channel has more than 60,000 subscribers.
The Telegram channel is gory: It shows piles of bodies, men with broken jaws lying dead in the mud. 200rf claims it posts these images because they might contain a detail that could be key to identifying a body back home. “I know that many Russians are worried about how and where their children, sons, husbands are and what is happening to them. So we decided to put this online so that each of you could search for your loved one who Putin sent to fight in Ukraine,” Viktor Andrusiv, an adviser to the Interior Minister, said in a video posted on the 200rf Look For Yours site. It’s unclear whether Andrusiv launched the site independently or on behalf of the Interior Ministry. Neither replied to a request for comment.
“I think it's a really effective strategy in that it’s not only an appeal to the Russian public, there's also an appeal to the Russian military, so it's two for one,” says Edelson. “It’s demoralizing to your opponent's fighting force to see that, and it is also incredibly demoralizing to their parents and to their friends and family back home.”
But these tactics only work while Russians share parts of the internet with the rest of the world. Tinder, Google Maps, Telegram, and YouTube act as bridges that Russians can use to interact with people who don’t see the same propaganda they do. But the fate of these remaining platforms is uncertain. Since the crisis in Ukraine began, Facebook has been blocked, Twitter has been partially suspended, and TikTok said it would pause livestreaming and video uploads from Russia. With every new announcement, the propaganda wall around Russians grows stronger and becomes less vulnerable to the voices trying to break through.
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