Trolling Russia's Hearts and Minds

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Wars are fought at the front lines, but winning a nation’s hearts and minds comes at the home front. In Russia, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a hotly contested political subject, and nothing counts more than rhetoric about the people who have died. This is hardly surprising, given that almost 6,000 people—many of them Russian citizens fighting for “Novorossiya”—have been killed in eastern Ukraine since the start of hostilities last year.

In the polarizing environment of war, many online are especially anxious to cling to any information that reinforces their preconceptions about the conflict. Last week, users of the image-board (known in Russian as “Dvach”) launched a campaign to test Russians’ gullibility about information concerning the “fallen heroes” of the Donbas separatists:

ЗООНАБЛЮДАЕМ за нашими дорогими соотечественниками и пытаемся разузнать насколько толстым должна быть деза, чтобы среднестатистический ватник в нее не поверил, края пока не видно, но мы выстоим.

We’re going to zoo-observe our dear compatriots, and try to find out how ridiculous disinformation has to be, before a vatnik [a derogatory term for those who support eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists] starts to second-guess it. We don’t know if there’s even a limit, but here goes nothing.

The plan was simple: choose a famous public person—a politician, an actor, an infamous criminal—and claim they either died fighting for the separatists in Ukraine, or attribute to them a strongly pro-Russian statement. These photo mashups are typically signed with intentionally misspelled names, often translated awkwardly into Russian. For its experiment, Dvach targeted users of Odnoklassniki, Russia’s second-most popular social network that attracts an older, more conservative crowd.

Dvach’s project uses what are known as “troll quotes,” an image-macro meme that dates back at least to 2010. Know Your Meme defines troll quotes as images created to annoy people:

Troll quotes are image macros that feature a quote from a popular movie or TV show and attribute the quote to a character in another popular movie or TV show. Often the background image will come from a third unrelated pop culture source. These images are created in order to annoy or troll members of all the involved fandoms who will quickly identify the obviously incorrect attribution.

This “troll quote” features words by Star Wars’ Yoda, a photograph of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, and is signed by Dumbledore, the wizard headmaster from Harry Potter.

Dvach’s innovation is using its image macros as a test for political gullibility. By getting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Odnoklassniki users to “like” some of these dis-informative images, Dvach exposed an important effect of the echo chambers operating online (especially on social networks, where individuals can tailor their information flows to media outlets and communities that never challenge their prejudices).

The image macro above shows a photo of the famous Ukrainian nationalist Dmitri Yarosh, head of the extremist group Pravyi Sektor, claiming he died fighting Kyiv’s “fascists” in Debaltseve. In the text, Yarosh’s name is reversed to read “Dmitry Shorya,” and his organization is renamed “Our Cause Is Right.” The comments below the image say, “Respect…,” “RIP Dmitry Shorya,” and “May you rest in peace!!!”

This image shows American former pornstar Sasha Grey, whose surname is translated into the Russian word meaning “grey,” claiming she died as a first-aid worker in eastern Ukraine. Her obituary contains several sexually suggestive double entendres (for example, “they say she could raise even the most hopelessly wounded men to their feet”).

This macro shows Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician who ran the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Renamed “Yegor Mangelov,” he’s identified as a field surgeon “tortured and executed by the Ukrainian fascists,” and is said to have gone by the nickname “Angel” (a play on Mengele’s real nickname, “Angel of Death”). Comments below the image read, “Oh God! So much for the ceasefire… May he rest in peace,” “the Euro-Ukrainians did this,” and “may this hero of Novorossiya rest in peace!”


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