Spread of Russian Propaganda on the Invasion of Ukraine around Victory Day
20 May 2022
ISD analysts conducted a research study to establish to what extent Kremlin propaganda narratives about Victory Day were gaining traction on Facebook in 11 different languages and countries both in and outside Europe between 7–10 May 2022.
Every year on 9 May, Russia and other post-Soviet countries celebrate Victory Day, which commemorates the victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. In post-Soviet Russia, however, Victory Day has become a holiday central to state propaganda, serving as an occasion to celebrate Russian military power, glorify the Soviet past and assert neo-imperialist ambitions by drawing parallels between the Soviet Union and the current Russian state.
This year, Victory Day was primarily seen in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian soldiers who participated in the invasion of Ukraine took part in the military parade in Moscow. Justification of the Russian war against Ukraine was the focus of Vladimir Putin’s speech during the parade. Both the parade and speech received Western media attention because of fears and expectations that Putin would make a major announcement, such as a mass mobilisation in Russia, on 9 May.
Days in advance of Victory Day, Russian state media, officials and diplomatic representatives abroad used the symbolic holiday to spread propaganda about the invasion and mobilise their audiences for pro-Russian rallies and convoys. ISD analysts conducted a research study to establish to what extent Kremlin propaganda narratives about Victory Day were gaining traction on Facebook in different languages and countries both in and outside Europe between 7 – 10 May 2022 (four full days). Based on the in-house language capabilities of our analysts, we analysed the top ten most shared posts about “Victory Day” on Facebook in 11 languages: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Dutch, Polish, Slovak, Czech and Russian. These are the main languages spoken in the EU countries. Russian was included in the analysis as it is relevant for the Russian diaspora in the EU.
- 36 of the 110 most shared posts about Victory Day included pro-Kremlin narratives. These posts were shared over 47,879 times at the time of the data collection. The most widely shared pro-Kremlin posts were written in Hungarian, French and Spanish.
- Posts by Russian and Chinese state media and government organisations were among the most shared in English, French and Italian-language content about Victory Day.
- 33 of the 110 posts came from pages that were classified by ISD analysts as having a pro-Kremlin bias. In 26 cases, analysts identified these pages as actively spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation.
- 18 of the 110 most shared posts justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine by, for example, drawing parallels between modern Ukraine and Nazi Germany or claiming that people in the occupied territories of Ukraine would finally be able to celebrate Victory Day, which they had allegedly not been allowed to before.
Using CrowdTangle, we identified and analysed the ten most shared posts on Facebook mentioning “Victory Day” in each language between 7 – 10 May 2022 (four full days), analysing a total of 110 posts. This timeframe corresponded with when online discussion about Victory Day, and the events around it, peaked. The reason we chose to filter posts by language (rather than by Country or Local Relevance) was two-fold. Foremost, the language filter on Facebook is the only filter which allows analysis of pages, public groups and verified profiles, thereby allowing for a broader analysis. Secondly, it is our contention that the consumption of social media content is based on linguistic more than geographical proximity: content in a specific language can travel and influence audiences well beyond the country in which it was originally produced.
For each post, we coded whether or not the content mentioned Ukraine, was pro-Kremlin, and if it justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We also coded the source of the post (e.g. a specific media outlet), to be able to determine whether the pages were Kremlin-affiliated or pro-Kremlin outlets more easily.
We counted mentions of Ukrainian regions and cities as mentions of Ukraine (for example, Putin did not use the word “Ukraine” in his speech on 9 May, but referenced “Donbas” several times whilst talking about the current war).
Content was categorised as pro-Kremlin if it contained pro-Kremlin narratives, which included the following:
- glorification of the Soviet Union;
- uncritical celebration of the parade in Moscow on the 9 May;
- uncritical use of St. George’s ribbons or other signs to express support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Z, V);
- any known disinformation narratives about Ukraine (such as claims that the government is a Nazi regime, that people in Ukraine were prohibited from speaking Russian and celebrating the Victory Day, that Russia is liberating Ukraine);
- parallels between the Second World War and the current Russian invasion of Ukraine by portraying Russia as a country continuing its historical fight against Nazis in Ukraine;
- claims that there is a wave of “Russophobia” in Europe.
Many of the posts shared livestreams and videos of the parade in Moscow and Putin’s speech which had been posted by both pro-Kremlin and established Western media, without accompanying commentary. Any posts which shared videos or livestreams of the Victory Day parade and Putin’s speech, or transcripts of the latter, were coded as ‘uncommented’, unless they had been published by Kremlin-affiliated or known pro-Kremlin pages. These posts represent an interesting edge case as, in the absence of any commentary, they de facto contribute to the uncritical spread of pro-Kremlin narratives. A more detailed discussion of these cases is included in the below text.
The number of shares and interactions refer to the number of shares and interactions at the time of data collection, which was in the morning of 11 May. For the three most widely shared posts, this was updated to reflect the figures at the time of writing (afternoon of 13 May).
Mentions of Ukraine
67 of the 110 most shared posts about Victory Day mentioned Ukraine. Aside from pro-Kremlin posts, mentions of Ukraine came from established European media outlets discussing Putin’s speech and its significance for the future course of the war, as well other posts critical of Russia’s invasion. In several countries, demonstrations supporting Ukraine had taken place on 8 and 9 May, and there were smaller incidents by Soviet memorials, such as the attack on the Russian ambassador in Poland with red paint. These demonstrations and incidents were often mentioned in the most shared posts about Victory Day.
In Russian-language posts, all mentions of Ukraine were highly critical of Russia. The most-shared post was published by the channel “Current Time”, which is part of the Russian-language network of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The post contained a video which debunked disinformation in Putin’s speech during the parade. Other most-shared Russian-language posts mentioning Ukraine came from the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Arkady Babchenko, a Russian blogger highly critical of Russian authorities. The lack of Russian propaganda in most widely shared Russian-language posts can partly be explained by the fact that Facebook is blocked in Russia and is not the priority platform for Russian-language state propaganda.
Posts that did not mention Ukraine commonly focused on commemorating the end of the Second World War. These posts tended to be popular in countries with their own tradition of commemoration. For example, in both Slovakia and Czech Republic, commemoration of the Second World War was moved to 8-9 May after the Velvet Revolution, and remembrance has been centred around the end of the World War and victory over fascism. Posts in both Czech and Slovak reflected this.
36 out of 110 most shared posts were classified as containing pro-Kremlin narratives. These were posts that endorsed or uncritically repeated official Kremlin narratives; celebrated the parade in Moscow; commemorated Victory Day in line with the official Kremlin position; or supported the invasion of Ukraine. Overall, the 36 pro-Kremlin posts had been shared a total of 47,879 times at the time of data collection.
The presence of pro-Kremlin posts in the 10 most shared posts in each language analysed varied significantly: in Hungarian (7), French (5), Slovak (5) and Spanish (5) language posts around Victory Day, at least half shared pro-Kremlin narratives.
The most widely shared pro-Kremlin post overall was posted by the page ‘Orosz Hírek’ (“Russian News”), one of the most well-known Hungarian-language pro-Russian disinformation sites. The post features a clip of Putin’s speech on Victory Day; it has over 788K views and over 5,035 shares at the time of writing.
The second most-shared post was published by the Spanish-language page ‘Visión Mundial’, a page that is managed by administrators in Bolivia and primarily shares pro-Kremlin narratives and anti-US/NATO content.
The post, which at the time of writing has already been viewed over 260k times and shared over 4,400 times, includes the video of Putin’s speech during Victory Day dubbed in Spanish with dramatic music in the background. Text accompanying the video reads (in Spanish) “Persuasive speech by the Russian President: Nobody will ever bend or humiliate the Russian population”.
The third most-shared post was published by another Spanish-language page, ‘Noticias de Ucrania’. As with Visión Mundial, the page is managed from Bolivia and spreads pro-Kremlin content. The post has received over 3,800 shares and 497k views at the time of writing. The video includes parts of Putin’s speech and is overset with the text: “This Monday 9 of may could change everyone’s story. Every 9 of may the bear (???) celebrates his grand national holiday”.
4 of the 36 pro-Kremlin posts came directly from Russian or Chinese state actors. These actors were: RT, RT France, the Chinese state media outlet CGTN, and the Italian-language page of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian government agency that promotes Kremlin narratives abroad. Both RT posts were live-streams of the parade in Moscow and Putin’s speech with English-language and French-language voiceover; both videos have received positive comments and reactions. Chinese state media content included pictures from a rehearsal of the parade. There were an additional two posts which contained RT videos and were posted by a popular Spanish-language pro-Kremlin page.
A further 33 of the 110 posts came from pages classified by ISD analysts as having a pro-Kremlin bias. In 26 cases, analysts have identified these pages to be actively spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation.
The following pro-Kremlin pages in the dataset have the largest number of followers:
- Future Russia. This page has 701,262 followers. It is affiliated with a website that publishes information about various travelling destinations around the world. The Facebook page publishes pictures from Russia, but also clearly political pro-Kremlin content in Russian and English.
- Владимир Путин. A Russian-language fan page of Vladimir Putin with 561,106 followers, affiliated with a similar Instagram account, which has 298,000 followers.
- M1. This page belongs to the Hungarian state-funded public broadcaster M1, which has been often echoing and amplifying pro-Kremlin narratives around Russian invasion of Ukraine. The page has 221,238 followers.
- Visión Mundial. This Spanish-language page with 179,473 followers is managed by administrators in Bolivia and spreads pro-Kremlin narratives and anti- NATO content.
- Noticias de Ucrania. Another Spanish-language page with 147,372 followers is administered from Bolivia like the previous one. The page changed its name to “Noticias de Ucrania” (“Ukraine News”) on 25 February 2022, the day after the start of the Russian invasion. Prior to this, it has been called “Cuida tu Salud” (“Watch your health”) and “Diario Noticias Salud” (“Daily Health News”).
Content containing livestreams
If posts containing livestreams and videos of the parade in Moscow and Putin’s speech came from neutral media outlets without any pro-Kremlin bias, they were coded as ‘uncommented’. Livestreams represent an interesting edge case. Although sharing livestreams of the parade and Putin’s speech was likely intended to show a potentially significant event with a potentially important announcement, in practice, these posts did not differ from livestreams by RT as they promoted uncontextualised Russian propaganda.
An easy way to avoid this would have been to accompany the videos with expert commentary or explanation. The posts were widely shared and have received a significant volume of positive reactions, confirming their problematic nature. For example, in Germany a livestream of the parade by the news outlet ‘t-online’ was the most shared post about the Victory Day. The post has received 13,201 likes, 4,316 “angry” and 2,932 “love” reactions. The most popular comments on the post were emojis of applause and hearts.
In French and Hungarian-language content, seven of the ten most shared posts about Victory Day included pro-Kremlin narratives – the highest proportion of pro-Kremlin content across all languages analysed. In Spanish, six of the ten most shared posts were pro-Kremlin, and in Slovak five of ten. This shows that despite the ban of Russian state media in the EU, pro-Kremlin content is still widely shared on Facebook and reaches audiences in Europe.
Pro-Kremlin posts justifying the Russian invasion
A particularly problematic subset of pro-Kremlin posts included content that directly justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There were four such posts in Hungarian and Spanish, three in Italian; two in Dutch and one in German, French and Czech.
The most common way these posts attempted to justify Russian aggression was through drawing alleged parallels between Ukraine and Nazi Germany. For example, one RT video posted by a Spanish-language page discussed a post published on Victory Day by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky’s post featured a Ukrainian soldier with a skull and crossbones on his uniform. The video claimed that glorification of Nazis is embedded in the educational system in Ukraine, thus repeating a major Russian propaganda narrative about Ukraine.
The Italian page of the Russian government agency Rossotrudnichestvo published a lengthy post about the ‘Immortal Regiment’, an event to commemorate the Second World War. Immortal Regiment started as a grassroots initiative in Russia, but was later co-opted by the Russian authorities. The post claimed that people from Russia, Ukraine and Moldova were participating in the event. It quoted a participant who allegedly said, “In this moment more than ever this event marks the difference between those who categorically refuse any form of fascism and those who use fascism for their geopolitical means”, thus alluding to the war in Ukraine and suggesting that Russia is fighting not against all Ukrainians, but only against “fascists”. The post has received over 900 interactions and has been shared over 300 times.
In another Italian-language post, a page that predominantly publishes anti-US content and amplifies pro-Kremlin narratives, posted a video from Italian pro-Kremlin influencer Vittorio Rangeloni. The video featured people in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol with Russian flags, claiming that they “can finally celebrate the Victory Day again”. The video has received around 22,000 views at the time of the analysis. While the video was filmed in the occupied Mariupol, it is impossible to check the circumstances in which it was filmed.
Russian state media and officials used Victory Day and commemoration of the Second World War to spread propaganda about the current war against Ukraine. Pro-Kremlin content produced by state Russian and Chinese media, as well as by pro-Kremlin pages in various European languages, was shared widely on Facebook, including posts which actively sought to justify the Russian invasion.
It is particularly problematic that posts from pages which are not directly affiliated with the Russian state, but nevertheless spread pro-Kremlin narratives and disinformation, can easily become the most shared content on a specific topic. The example of Victory Day shows how Russian propaganda, using global historical events to justify its aggressive policies, can reach large, multilingual audiences online.