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How Ukrainians are bypassing Russian censorship to share news of the war
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How Ukrainians are bypassing Russian censorship to share news of the war

Sending push notifications through a face-swapping app, adding pictures of the devastation from the bombings in Ukraine to Google Maps, hacking electric chargers… These are some of the tricks that are being used by Ukrainians to bypass Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strict censorship, and to make sure that accurate information about the war in Ukraine reaches everyday Russians.

President Putin has blocked or limited access to foreign news coverage in Russia about the war in Ukraine, including Facebook and Twitter. Russia’s state communications and media watchdog Roskomnadzor has also passed a censorship law forbidding Russian journalists from using the words “war”, “invasion” or “offensive” when talking about the “special operation” in Ukraine. 

In response, ordinary Ukrainians have been finding creative ways of fighting the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign and informing people in Russia about what is really going on.

Ukrainian face-swapping app has sent push alerts to two million Russian usersThe face-swapping app Reface, which is based in Kyiv, has launched a global information campaign to spread the news, share photos of destruction in Ukrainian cities and encourage its users to stand with Ukraine. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to the company’s CEO, Dima Shvets.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine, we sent out a push notification to our users with a message: ‘Russia has invaded Ukraine’. Users who opened the app were then presented with more details about the situation on the ground, including images and videos.

A Push notification that was shared with Reface users when Russia invaded Ukraine (left) and a photo on the App (right). © Reface

Nine million notifications have currently been sent worldwide and two million have been delivered to users in Russia. We have also moved up to the seventh place in the US App store.

Our app was previously used to take the faces of users and put them onto the bodies of celebrities. Since Russia’s invasion, we have been encouraging everyone to swap themselves into President Zelensky. 

All new videos created by the app feature a watermark that includes the Ukrainian flag and the hashtag #StandWithUkraine.

Picture of Zelensky on the Reface App © Reface

Example of #StandwithUkraine watermark on the Reface App © Reface

‘The food is good, but the war in Ukraine is not’On Monday, February 28, the hacking group “Anonymous” incited people to leave fake reviews of Russian businesses and restaurants in Google Maps to inform citizens about the conflict in Ukraine. The group tweeted: “Go to Google Maps. Go to Russia. Find a restaurant or business and write a review. When you write the review, explain what is happening in Ukraine.”

The tweet quickly gained traction. Reviews have been filling up across Russia with news about the conflict in Ukraine. For example, one of the reviews for a Moscow restaurant called Romantic reads “5,800 Russian soldiers died today, 4,500 yesterday. Stop your aggression, don’t let your kids suffer, if you go to war you will not come back”. Another review for the same place reads “Food is great, but your leader is killing innocent people in Ukraine!!! Stop this war.”

Screenshot of Google Maps showing restaurants in Moscow. © Google Maps

Google Maps allows users to upload photos of places – usually as part of a review of the spot – but users have also been using this feature to get images from Ukraine into Russia.

People are using Google Maps to fight the Russian state propaganda machine.

Restaurant reviews are filling up across Russia with explanations about what is really happening in Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/S158wkO0Vr

— Laurie Hayes (@laurieb2b) March 1, 2022

One of the images frequently posted for these locations is a screenshot of a phone that allegedly belonged to a Russian soldier, showing an apparent text conversation with his mother (see below).

Google Maps has since disabled reviews in Russia and Ukraine after they were used as a space to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

A Google spokesperson said in a statement: “Due to a recent increase in contributed content on Google Maps related to the war in Ukraine, we’ve put additional protections in place to monitor and prevent content that violates our policies for Maps, including temporarily blocking new reviews, photos, and videos in the region.”

‘Putin is a d***head’: Russian electric chargers hacked to show Ukraine supportIn a more organised effort, Russian electric charging points for cars were hacked to show messages of support for Ukraine, which included ‘Glory to Ukraine’ and ‘Putin is a d***head’’.

Caption: A car charging station on Russia’s M11 highway

In a Facebook post, the Russian energy company, Rosseti, claimed that the Ukrainian company which provided some of the parts had hacked the charging points to which it still had access. 

This effort is part of a wave of cyber campaigns targeted at Russia. The international hacking collective “Anonymous” has claimed responsibility for various cyberattacks, including on Russia’s state broadcaster RT and over 300 Russian websites.

The moves came after “Anonymous” declared itself to be in a “cyber warfare campaign against Putin and his allies”.

‘We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of Putin’s information warfare’Can campaigns like this have a meaningful impact? The FRANCE 24 Observers team asked Valentina Shapovalova, a specialist in Russian media and propaganda at the University of Copenhagen.

I think that it’s still too early to see how effective these measures will be. But it’s still incredibly interesting to see how many regular citizens are participating in bottom-up counter-propaganda measures and to see how creative they are getting. 

But we shouldn’t underestimate the strength of Putin’s information warfare, he has been suffocating the information space for decades and there is now very little room for anything else to get into the minds of citizens. The same narratives have been replayed in the Russian media for years, Putin has been priming Russians with his propaganda efforts. And when you tell the same story again and again people start to believe it as true. It’s so deeply rooted that reviews on Google Maps may not have the impact that they should.

Another very important strategy that the Kremlin has been using is to create confusion and fog, to spit out so many stories and so many contradictory images and news that people get confused and don’t know what the truth is anymore. 

Some of the grand narratives that the government has been feeding to Russians include the narrative that the Ukrainian government is a Nazi government installed by the West, that the Russian-speaking people in Ukraine have been oppressed since 2014 and that the Ukrainian government is exercising genocide.

More than one million people have already fled Ukraine and hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed as a result of the war.

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