Tracking Russia’s Online Influence: A Case Study from Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Elections

The Russian Federation has made a concerted effort to subvert Western democracy. As Russia undergoes a relative decline, it has shown itself willing to undertake increasingly brazen influence operations. The Russian strategy to sow division within Western societies grows out of a position of weakness. Nevertheless, it presents a serious threat and should be treated as such.

Russia’s focused efforts have many times proven successful, and up to now, a distracted West has enabled Russia to advance its cause. One manifestation of Russian influence operations is its targeted use of disinformation. Russia has developed a sophisticated information apparatus that assists it in twisting public opinions and spreading what has colloquially come to be termed “fake news.” This system utilizes Russian official messaging, state-owned and government-influenced news agencies, and a network of unofficial “news” websites, trolls, and bots.

Through this, the Russian government advances its narrative, launders disinformation as fact, and directs and redirects the online debate. The case of Ukraine is essential in understanding the tactics Russia uses in influence operations. The data presented in this case study was gathered using Zignal Labs’ media analytics software programmed to track the online conversation surrounding the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections. This technology acts as a spotlight, focusing on the issue areas toward which it is directed.

A successful strategy for countering Russian influence operations must be multifaceted. One key component will be the continuous tracking of Russian efforts to influence public opinion vis-à-vis online disinformation campaigns. This tracking can help enable an offensive response, which is essential in gaining the upper hand in the information space. Furthermore, Russia has a history of preparing the information environment for the narrative it wishes to present in oncoming kinetic operations. In this way, active analysis of Russian information operations can give Western observers insight about Russia’s next moves.

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