Grassroots efforts to inform propagandist Russians about the unprovoked war in Ukraine are proving difficult, if not impossible.
Since Russia began invading Ukraine a month ago, grassroots initiatives across Europe — notably in Lithuania and Norway — have tried to reach ordinary Russians by phone, SMS, or other means to communicate about the war by making contact to people across the country. one after the other.
Did it do anything? Some, it seems.
Vilnius-based Paulius Senuta is part of an initiative called Call Russia. By recruiting Russian speakers – initially in Lithuania but now from around the world – it has now made over 100,000 calls to Russia. At first they encountered a wall of opposition.
“In the beginning, the people we spoke to — unless they were angry and yelling at us — basically (if they understood what the call was about) they basically shut up and didn’t talk at all,” Senuta told this one Author. The organization decided to hire a psychologist to figure out how to better communicate with those who hold fundamentally different views.
Now, “we try not to speak ideologically but to speak in humanitarian terms. . . Let them know about the tragedy in Ukraine that we believe every human being will sympathize with,” Senuta said.
The result, he says, is that people are starting to stay on the calls longer — perhaps because what they’re hearing on a day-to-day basis deviates more dramatically from state propaganda. And maybe because carefully worded persuasion also has an effect.
“Once you’ve planted that doubt in your mind, you obviously have to be persuasive to plant that doubt — so you’ve got to make an effort. But once you set that doubt, someone’s mechanism starts working.” Senuta adds that they see better responses when callers speak unaccented Russian — and some calls last up to an hour. “I think it’s wonderful because you guys are really having a real conversation,” Senuta said.
Lithuania has something of a history of imaginative civic policy projects. In the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing war in the country’s east, a group of Lithuanians have taken it upon themselves to found the “Elves,” an online resistance movement that has since grown into a volunteer army of about 100 has become 4,000. They are flocking to social media, posting memes, fighting disinformation and monitoring “toxic” pages on Facebook, one member recently told FRANCE 24.
Another Lithuanian influencer used Tinder, Bumble and Badoo to spread the news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bypassing borders to reach people in Russia and spearheading a campaign to encourage other Lithuanians to do the same.
Agnė Kulitaitė is using a fake Badoo presence, “Natasha Romanova, 28”, after the Marvel Comics superheroine, and her real name on Tinder, moving her location from Vilnius to Moscow to share information about both the invasion of Ukraine and also spread protests about the whereabouts of Russians. The apps help her communicate with people in an increasingly isolated country, she says.
“I was inspired by a recent campaign that became popular around the world – encouraging people to visit Google reviews, visit cafes, bars and restaurants in Russia and leave feedback on the current situation in Ukraine,” she said .
Its tens of thousands of followers quickly caught on and spread the word, reaching several notable people including this year’s Lithuanian ESC representative, Monika Liu.
She advises her 42,000 Facebook followers to buy the Tinder Gold feature, which allows users to change their location anywhere in the world. Users then change their location from Vilnius to cities in Russia or Belarus, put the Ukrainian flag on their profile photo and explain what is happening – preferably in Russian – in their profile description. The posts are about “how people need to open their eyes and see that the war was started by Vladimir Putin and that he is now destroying innocent civilians in Ukraine, separating families and killing children,” she says. She selected the widest possible range of people—males and females, from 18 to 100—and reached the widest possible radius from a given location. “Then wipe like there’s no tomorrow.”
Her followers have complied, creating profile descriptions that say things like, “Do something. Innocent civilians and children die. You must resist your despot! Protest! Take to the streets! You can’t lock them all up!”
The results have been mixed, Kulitaitė said. Since the invasion began, Russia has imposed an unprecedented level of media censorship, silencing major independent broadcasters and requiring people to speak only of a “special operation” and not an invasion. “90% of the people I reach in Russia are swimming in a sea of lies and propaganda,” she said. “They don’t believe what I say, so they often curse me or question me.” She expects to be banned at some point.
“Of course, there were also pleasant surprises when people admitted that they did not want war, but are afraid to do something and silently support Ukraine.”
As the BBC recently reported, in Norway, a person vaguely described as a “computer expert” has set up a website that allows anyone to send emails with the subject “I’m not your enemy” to about 150 Russian email addresses at once send. More than 22 million emails reached Russian inboxes in just a few days, the outlet reported.
Like Senuta and Kulitaitė, they report small wins—from curious people wanting to learn more, from extended conversations with those who don’t necessarily fully trust the portrayal of the Russian state.
“I’ve sent around 500 emails so far and got around 20 replies in a day, so I’m hoping for more,” a volunteer named “Alex” told the BBC. “Most of the replies are from people asking me to remove them from my mailing list, but I struck up a conversation with a 35-year-old woman from St. Petersburg. She told me she wasn’t sure what was going on in the conflict and wanted to know more.”
“Alex” then explained how to circumvent the restrictions on Internet access. “I think I have a friend in her now!” he said.
Aliide Naylor is the author of “The shadow in the east(Bloombury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and now moves between London and the Baltic States, where she works as a journalist, editor and translator.