Targeted ads follow us around the internet, pitching us everything from meme-based T-shirts to Mahabis slippers wherever we go. Now the power of tracking pixels and pop-up ads is being used to try to tell ordinary Russians what’s really happening during the invasion of Ukraine.
“We’ve seen the powerful role that civil society can play in telling the story of Ukraine, advocating for its interests, and rallying international support,” says Jack Pearson, a foreign policy communications specialist who previously worked for the UK Foreign Office specializing in digital diplomacy. “Now we’re seeing efforts from communities around the world to break the Kremlin’s information stranglehold, to reach ordinary Russians.”
Reliable news is hard to get in Russia at the moment. State news outlets are telling viewers that the invasion is a defensive move, while independent Russian stations like TV Rain are being shut down at the behest of authorities. Meanwhile, international press organizations such as the BBC and Voice of America have been blocked. To fill the information void, a small army of activists are exploiting holes in the Russian firewall. In so doing, they’re trying to provide a modicum of fact in a Russian media ecosystem that is increasingly untethered from the truth.
The activists puncturing holes in Russia’s propaganda machine are taking any opportunity they can. Users of the Russian pharmacy chain Ozerki’s app received push notifications overnight on February 28 telling them to “wake up” to Vladimir Putin’s attempt to steal the lives of Russian soldiers, alongside the Russian population’s money, by sending his countrymen to war. The chain later said it had been the victim of a hack.
Digital campaigners have been bombarding Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google, with falsified reviews of major locations in the country that spread the truth about Putin’s incursion into Ukraine. One Ukraine-born, America-based academic has emailed thousands of her Russian colleagues to let them know what’s going on in her homeland at their army’s hands.
New Now, a Web design agency in Berlin, has posted a web script on GitHub that will push a pop-up onto any web page where the script is included, telling those accessing the website from a Russian IP that their government is lying to them, and that innocent people and children are being killed.
“This whole thing, from a development point of view, is super simple,” says Kai Nicolaides of New Now, who wrote the script. He came up with the idea when seeing the sources of traffic to the websites of personal projects he ran. “Those projects might not be blocked for Russian visitors, because they’re not significant enough from an information point of view,” he says.
“We’re not a foreign news source or anything—they’re just fun projects.” The concept was to raise awareness for those who have no idea of what’s going on—and to prompt those who do know to think a little deeper. “We thought most Russians will know something is fishy, but maybe there are a few who will need a nudge,” says Nicolaides. “We thought we could start this grassroots movement.”
The canny tricks to put chinks in the Russian state narrative about Ukraine also include placing online ads that aim to tell the truth about what’s going on.
London marketing and communications professional Rob Blackie is crowdfunding targeted ads that are designed to funnel Russian readers to independent Russian-language news sources about the Ukraine conflict. He is—he admits—taking advantage of the fact that “the digital ad land has been until recently a total Wild West.”
He first tested the method in 2014, when Russia captured Crimea from Ukraine under another false pretext. He used location targeting to send ads to people living in Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, and show them news of the Russian invasion. It ended up in front of 1,000 pairs of eyeballs. It was a very small experiment, but it showed he was able to penetrate the Russian firewall of fake news.
Today, he’s working with around 20 fellow ad professionals in the UK on a larger-scale campaign that launched on February 27. “Our basic concept is find loopholes in the system, deliver those ads into Russia, and those ads will link people to independent news websites showing people news about what’s going on in Ukraine,” he says.
The team has been playing cat and mouse with both digital censors in Russia and the platforms through which the ads are served, both of which are highly alert to information that they want to restrict—accurate facts about the invasion in Russia’s case, and inaccurate pro-Russia narratives for the platforms.
One set of ads was banned overnight on March 3, according to Blackie, who refuses to share information about where and how the team is placing them. “I can’t talk about platforms other than to say we’re trying everything we can think of,” he says. He equates it to his day job working on marketing for biotech companies, one of which saw a positive ad promoting news of a covid vaccine breakthrough banned because of an overly censorious dragnet trying to stop anti-vax ads. “What we know from our experience is it’s possible to get around those rules if you’re determined and you don’t mind breaching Russian law,” he says.
To support MIT Technology Review’s journalism, please consider becoming a subscriber.
The UK ad campaign is sending Russian recipients to “four or five” URLs of independent websites covering Ukraine in the Russian language, specifically chosen in the hope that it’ll encourage them to return to the site day after day, undermining the Kremlin’s official narrative. But social media isn’t the only forum for such activity.
“In the modern world there are a lot of places you can advertise, and we’re trying a lot of those,” he says, claiming that if he could find a way to access digital ad billboards on the Moscow Metro, he’d try seeding information there: “We’ve got a lot of experts who have devious brains trying to get around the rules.”
He has only raised £18,500 ($24,500) so far, but the campaign has already reached 2 million people, with 42,000 clicking through to websites it promotes. More than 100,000 ads were served in the first nine hours of March 4, despite bans on some key terms used.
Blackie is far from the only person harnessing online advertising’s ability to pinpoint specific users within Russia to raise awareness of the country’s aggressions. More than 1,300 ads mentioning “Ukraine” are currently running on Facebook and Instagram targeting users based in Russia. (A further 1,100 are running using “Украина,” the Cyrillic version of “Ukraine,” though that includes many innocuous ads picturing cats.) While Facebook isn’t as dominant in Russia as VK, the homegrown alternative, four in 10 Russians reportedly use it, while six in 10 are on Instagram.
Many of the ads are run by the “news and media website” Ukraine War, while others are run by the “social media agency” Safe Ukraine. They include emotive videos of captured Russian soldiers tearfully calling their parents back home to reveal the reality of what war is like, alongside text exhorting Russians to speak out against the war. The project is run by Bohdana, a 33-year-old from the northwest Ukrainian city of Lutsk, who declined to share her surname.
Another grassroots campaign is organized by the Ukrainian arm of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB). “We try to give more information about the real situation, because there’s very strict control on information in Russia, and there’s no independent media,” says Anastasiya Baydachenko, IAB Ukraine’s chief executive.
For the first week of the war, the Ukrainian advertising industry’s campaign has operated largely on Google’s advertising network—though it recently hit the buffers with the request by Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media regulator, to stop spreading what Russia deemed “disinformation” about its activities in Russia. On March 4, Google acceded to that request, temporarily halting the ability to book ads in Russia. “The situation is evolving quickly,” the company said in a statement.
That action has scuppered some of the IAB-backed group’s plans. However, Baydachenko claims that Roskomnadzor’s decision to crack down on ads is a sign of the IAB campaign’s effectiveness.
The campaign, in which a large number of different accounts had each spent small amounts of money with Google to target demographics likely to include the mothers of Russian soldiers, will now port to Yandex. “We understand using Yandex is high risk because of its control,” she says. “That’s why it’s a long shot—but we’ll try to do it to build reach for our messages.”
Baydachenko says there are around four or five other Ukrainian initiatives operated by groups that independently set up in the first days of the war. “We’re all trying to reach Russian audiences with different messages,” she says.
The IAB’s campaign is funded by private companies as well as by donations and sponsors, who are willing to plow large sums into trying to get across the horrors of what’s going on in Ukraine at the hands of Vladimir Putin’s army. “The owners of Ukrainian businesses understand we have a crisis here,” says Baydachenko. “They are willing to spend $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, or $50,000 in order to communicate and bring information to Russia.”
Altogether, Baydachenko estimates, 10 million hryvnia ($330,000) has been spent on Ukraine-based ad campaigns trying to get more honest information into Russia in the last week. All of them are what Agnes Venema, a national security and intelligence academic at the University of Malta, calls “the 2022 version of the underground newspaper.” “People have found out that they can beat Putin at his own game by countering the disinformation in a way that allows any Russian with an internet connection to see it,” she says.
Yet despite the vast amounts being spent, some worry it’ll be ineffectual. “I think the ads are a waste,” says Steven Buckley, who studies social media and politics at the University of the West of England. “Many will have ad blockers, and the click-through rate on such ads are very low.” Buckley believes that Nicolaides’s script to pop up a notification seems most likely to succeed—but the Russian government could step in to block it.
Another approach would be direct emails to Russian addresses, perhaps including links to sites like the BBC, which has started more prominently pushing a dark web mirror that’s been accessible since 2019. However, such emails could be blocked by spam filters. Venema also cautions against assuming that any digital campaign will be a magic bullet.
“Russian disinformation has been so indoctrinating that I’m not sure how much of a difference a few ads will make,” she says. “In many ways, Russians are living a conspiracy theory, and we know that it is very hard to break free from that.”
Others are more confident that any action, no matter how small, can make a difference. “These sorts of people-to-people interactions could prove to be incredibly powerful if they can be sustained and scaled,” says Pearson. “Reaching ordinary Russians is, however, just one challenge. The cost of dissent in Russia is extremely high and getting higher.”
As for those involved, the alternative—doing nothing—wasn’t an option. “I just thought, what other ways are there to do some digital activism?” says Nicolaides. “What are the means I have currently? Where can I make even the slightest difference? It could be a drop in a huge bucket of water—but every drop counts in the end.”