For several months now, we have monitored online public discourse around the war in Ukraine. Our latest report examines user activity on Russian Telegram channels to understand reactions to the Kremlin's announment to partially mobilise citizens in the war effort.
From "special operation" to grim reality: Russians react online to the Kremlin's mobilisation
Russia's war against Ukraine seemed far away for many Russians. The Kremlin portrayed it in its propaganda as a “special military operation” that would not significantly change life for most Russians. This fiction, already threadbare due to the declining economic situation and the high number of Russian soldiers killed, was shattered when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” on 21 September 2022. The Kremlin had been reluctant to take that step, fearing domestic disquiet. An analysis of data from numerous Russian Telegram channels shows why. After 21 September, the domestic debate about the war became much more intense:
- Interest in the news has significantly increased after the announcement of the mobilisation. The war has finally arrived as a reality in Russian domestic discourse.
- Anti-war channels gained significant traction within a few days of the announcement, most notably in the republics with non-Russian ethnic majorities. It is worth noting that disproportionally more Russian soldiers come from these ethnic minority groups (or low-income regions) and, consequently, these have also registered much higher fatality rates. For example, the number of soldiers from Dagestan killed is 40 times higher, per capita, than the number from Moscow. The growth of engagement in anti-war channels in certain republics corresponds with reports of demonstrations; online trends mirror offline developments in this case.
- The channels of extremist voices in favour of the war have also significantly increased their audience since the mobilisation announcement, especially when criticising the conduct of the war.
- Women continue to play an important role in protests, as witnessed by the fact that more women than men have been arrested at protests, while many men have been fleeing the country. Protest channels operated by women have been growing their numbers of followers.
A more detailed analysis of the data identifies additional noteworthy trends:
- On pro-war channels, the Kremlin´s propaganda line that Ukraine has a problem with “Nazism” was a major focus but, since the end of September, these channels have predominantly been discussing the fate of the Donbas (made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, illegally annexed by Russia on 30 September), rather than “Nazism”. There has been a regional fragmentation of official discourse. After the start of the war, many governors of Russian regions started Telegram channels, presumably out of a perceived need to communicate more directly with their populations or, possibly, in response to a Kremlin order. However, their messaging on the war differed according to local context, especially in relation to gubernatorial elections in these regions. Governors in regions where there is stronger support for United Russia, the dominant party nationally, mention the war more often than those in regions where opposition parties enjoy significant support.
- Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, is a special case, as he has made himself into a social media personality. He has 3 million followers on Twitter and talks about the war a lot, showing video clips that are supposed to appear martial and combative.
Thanks to our social media monitoring of the war in Ukraine, we analyse online public discourse around the conflict in Ukraine, Russia, key EU member states and other relevant countries. We have looked at the online presence of politicians influencing Ukrainian public opinion, observed the perception of allies on Ukrainian social channels and much more.