Russian Disinformation: All Bot But No Bite?

Carol Yepes/Getty Images

Bots targeting the U.S. slowed their anti-vax campaigns while accelerating pro-Russia messaging, which doesn’t stick as well in the West.

Sometimes the absence of something is telling, like the dog that didn’t bark in the night.

There has been a noticeable shift in misinformation and disinformation campaigns in U.S. social media ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

“The Russians are [responsible for] maybe a third of the fake information on COVID and other things,” said James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He added that “the Russians are probably having a little bit harder time” keeping their online propaganda campaigns going.

Emilio Ferrara, Ph.D., associate director for Applied Data Science and Undergraduate Programs at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, has a team that has been tracking Twitter traffic since before the invasion started.

“February 22 was when I felt like most likely there was going to be an actual conflict, so we started to add more keywords [to the team’s searches,]” Ferrara said. “We have continuous data collection from a few days before the invasion to now … Of the vast majority [that include hashtags related to the war], 65%, are in English.”

“We found over 650,000 accounts—out of about 9.5 million total, so about 7%—that have been created since the beginning of the conflict [that] have been engaging with such Ukraine-Russia discussion almost exclusively since their creation,” Ferrara said on the trends as of March 30. “I think this is suspicious to a large extent since it's rather uncommon to see such a huge spike in the fraction of new accounts in a given topic and period of time—it's likely that at least some of these 650,000 accounts are part of influence or other information campaigns.”

Ferrara said his team has tracked “well over 100 million” tweets about the Russian invasion. The 650,000+ new accounts are responsible for nearly five million of them, he said.

McDaniel Wicker, Babel Street’s vice president for strategy, has seen similar indications.

“While [Putin] was moving troops into place, we saw a coordinated effort to amplify pro-Russian narratives,” Wicker said. “It was coordinated. If the Kremlin wasn’t behind it, it was someone with very sophisticated narrative skills.”

Now, however, Putin has to wage his information wars on multiple fronts.

“Before, he was mostly able to use his propaganda machine and trolls and bots to sow dissension in the West. Now he’s having to spend a lot of time and energy shoring up the home front,” Wicker said. “There’s not much convincing he can do in the West. Not much influence he can have to convince people that Russia isn’t the aggressor.”

Wicker noted that Ukraine is mounting its own aggressive social media campaign. “There are absolutely efforts on both sides to run an information campaign. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has done a great job. They’re still behind the eight ball on the [kinetic] war,” he said, adding that it is a potent message “if they can push out the narrative that they [are] sending Russians home in body bags.”

Another organization tracking Twitter activity surrounding the Russian invasion is the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University. Filippo Menczer, Luddy distinguished professor of informatics and computer science and director of the observatory, said March 21 that he and his group “have not noticed an appreciable decrease in traffic trends” since the invasion began.

However, he noted his group released a white paper about two weeks after the war started regarding “suspicious Twitter activity around the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” 

The white paper noted, “We compiled a list of almost 40 English, German, Russian and Ukrainian keywords relevant to the invasion and used them to collect over 60 million tweets posted since February 1 … The five most linked low-credibility sources include four Russian sources—,,, and—and, a disinformation source amplifying Russian propaganda, according to U.S. intelligence sources. On the date of the full-scale invasion … we observed a significant increase in the creation of new accounts.”

Tracking what messages bots are promoting, and to whom, may be the ultimate in moving targets. Emerson Brooking, Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said a messaging shift is already under way.

Russia convened a U.N. Security Council meeting to push its claims about biolabs in Ukraine, funded by the U.S., building chemical and biological weapons, Brooking said, and suddenly a lot of social media messaging promoted the disinformation. Russia “is now starting to test story lines and figure out which would be most effective,” he said. “There is understanding among Russians that they’re locked in an information conflict with the West.”