Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy is ramping up its attempts to win the information war with Russia. Their newest idea? Launching a website to recruit Ukrainian social media users for a government-run “Internet army.”
Minister Yuri Stets had already hinted in January that an “Internet force” of influential users, coordinated by and working for the state, would make a good weapon to wield against Russian propaganda and manipulation online. Now, it seems, the Ministry has put his ideas about “sharing truthful information and debunking fakes” into action.
The new website, i-army.org, popped up on the social media radar on February 23. Using the slogan “Each of your information messages is a bullet in your enemy's conscience,” the webpage invites users to submit their name/nickname and email address to join the ranks of “information warriors.”
Як ви знаєте, війну Росії проти України називають гібридною.
Все тому, що війна справжня, а інформація про неї брехлива. Проти нас відкрито багато фронтів,
і один з особливо важливих — інформаційний.
As you know, Russia's war against Ukraine is called a hybrid one.
This is because the war is real, and information about it is false. A lot of fronts are open against us, and the information front is one of the most important ones.
[from the i-army.org website]
The “iArmy” also got a Twitter account, where it has already started debunking fakes and educating followers about the “signs of Russian propaganda,” and a Facebook page, filled with photoshopped images to assist the recruiting effort.
Ukrainian social media users were immediately suspicious of the site and speculations about whether it was real or fake ran rampant. Media requests for comment to the Ministry went unanswered. Many users were understandably skeptical.
Если “Інформаційні війська України” не стёб, то всё очень печально.
— Павел Чистяков (@pavlentiyua) February 23, 2015
If “Ukraine's Information Army” isn't a joke, then it's really, really sad.
Finally, several hours later the Ministry's official online HQ spit out a press-release announcing the “Internet Army” launch and linking to the new website. The release says the Army's main goal is to mobilize Internet users to fight “Russian bots, spreading fakes, informational and psychological pressure from Russian media” and notes the Minister hopes that the new project “will help mobilize a number of volunteers to spread the truth and expose Russian fakes.”
The “Ukrainian Internet Army” will be run by a well-known Ukrainian blogger and video streamer Oleksandr Baraboshko (aka Krus), recently hired as adviser to the Minister. In an interview to Radio Liberty, Stets claimed that over 20 thousand users, including influential bloggers, have already joined the initiative.
Ukrainian social media users reacted to news of the new cyber army draft with varying degrees of humor and skepticism.
- Ты уроки сделал? – Нууу мааам, у меня важное задание от штаба информационных войск!
— ето Саша (@mrgrdsky) February 23, 2015
- Did you do your homework?
– Mom, I have an important task from the information army headquarters!
Джаст фо фан вступаю в інформаційні війська. Подивимось, які там бойові завдання будуть http://t.co/omMoA2bNmA
— Богдан Григорович (@bgrigorovich) February 23, 2015
Just for fun I'm joining the information forces. Let's see what kind of combat tasks they give us.
Users who subscribed on the website have already received several emails from the “Internet Army” command, informing them of the first tasks they had to perform. Those include recruiting their friends and followers to sign up on the website and leaving comments under news stories on “pro-Kremlin” Russian news websites like LifeNews. The emails also provide advice on dealing with “Kremlin trolls” (never try to argue with them) and warn users against sharing news from Russian websites (“they are all controlled by the Kremlin”).
The more critical voices on Twitter were unhappy about the level of professionalism displayed by the Ministry and the “Internet Army,” and some straight out dismissed the idea as ludicrous.
Мінстець створює інформаційні війська. Для початку ворог має лопнути зі сміху http://t.co/5xAX8LbN6R
— Олексій Тяжкий (@Oko_ua) February 23, 2015
MinStets [a portmanteau nickname for the Minister, Yuri Stets] is creating an information army. For a start, the enemy has to burst from laughter.
Бля, эти задания от Минстеця. И ведь, сука, это настоящий сайт и настоящая рассылка. Информационная политика my ass. pic.twitter.com/xPwkTS6fdP
— Bruce Wank (@Symphonicon) February 23, 2015
Damn, these tasks from MinStets. And this is a bloody real website and a real email list. Information policy my ass.
Some journalists have also criticized the idea of a government-run information warfare campaign. Reporter and activist Natali Sokolenko thought the ministerial backing discredited the initiative.
якби Стець запропонував об”єднатися блогерам у “інформаційні війська” не як міністр інформації міністерства правди, а від коордради, я би схвалила, а так – тільки відраза як від чогось мертво-бюрократчного
If Stets suggested bloggers come together as an “information army” not as the Minister of Information at the Ministry of Truth, but as [a representative] of the coordinating civic council, I'd approve of this, otherwise I only feel disgust at this stillborn bureaucracy.
The Ministry of Information Policy, itself a recent addition to the Ukrainian government, had a rocky start in January when it was dubbed the Ministry of Truth by the Ukrainian public. Many think it is an unnecessary waste of budget funds and an attempt to further curtail freedom of speech in Ukraine.
Volunteer groups in Ukraine are already engaging in information warfare in their own small ways, whether by hacking webcams and printers or by collecting data on rebel troop movements. The newest project, it seems, is not doing much to inspire confidence in the Ministry's abilities to guard Ukraine's information integrity and security. Given the stilted government rhetoric and the level of distrust towards the Ministry, it's hard to believe the “Internet Army” will be successful if it attempts to fight the Kremlin trolls with their own weapons.