WAR IS WAR: Vkontakte users discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory analyzed discussions on social media to find out what Russian citizens were saying about the phrases “War,” “Putin,” and the letter “Z”

This article features research and data from Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory

In today’s Russia, social networks are one of the few places where public discussions continue, the only “public spheres,” using the meaning that Habermas attached to them. In other words, social networks remain one of the few places where public opinion can be formed and where access for many citizens exists. In the absence of organized opposition, independent media, and elections, discussions on social networks are often the only way to get a glimpse into “public” opinion, or at least that of the users. It is unwise to trust official polls conducted by Russian government-sponsored sociological agencies such as WCIOM, a state-owned polling company that provides regular but suspect public opinion surveys. Last week, WCIOM reported that 68 percent of the population supported Russia’s so-called “special operation,” otherwise known as Russia’s war against Ukraine, while only 22 percent were against the war. But Russian polls are notoriously inaccurate, and Russian respondents may also be commenting on the war they see on Russian TV, which does not reflect the war happening on the ground in Ukraine. 

Soon, Russians may only have three social networks to use inside the country: VKontakte (23 million users per month), Odnoklassinki (5.1 million users per month, data from autumn 2021), and Livejournal (less than 7,000 users with over 1,000 subscribers at the moment, although it used to be a very popular blogger platform in Russia in the 2000s). On March 14, Instagram was fully blocked in Russia, while Facebook and Twitter were already blocked, under the pretext that Meta is an “extremist” organization that allows calls for the “death” of the Russian leader. YouTube is currently allowed but may be blocked by Roskomnadzor in a matter of days.  

Both VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki are controlled by the state. VKontakte’s director, Vladimir Kirienko, is the son of the deputy head of Putin’s administration, Sergey Kirienko; both face Western sanctions. VK’s API, which allows third parties to extract and analyze data, was a copycat of Facebook in 2006, and at the moment remains open for developers and researchers. In addition, there are no algorithmic mechanisms to monitor and censor comments: VK is organized by groups and personal pages, and users are responsible for comments on their pages. Many media on VK, lacking the resources to monitor comments and fearing punishment by VK or Roskomnadzor, have shut down the option to comment. This is especially true of officially registered media sources, such as the Yekaterinburg-based media outlet, 66.ru, but not by unofficial, unlicensed media communities.

There is a widely held opinion in Russia among those critical of Putin’s regime that VK’s users represent those people who support Putin, and view the world through propaganda glasses, and that VK collaborates with the FSB

VK is however very popular in Russia. According to a 2021 report by Brand Analytics, VK’s Russian-speaking users posted the largest number of messages per month, with over 408 million, while the number of active authors was second only to that of Instagram, with 23.8 million. 

Given the likelihood that VK’s API will be closed for further research, Global Voices investigated the opinions of VKontakte users on the Russian war with Ukraine, the actions of the Russian government, sanctions, and users’ opinions about President Putin in regional VK groups during the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

1. Research design

We scraped Vkontakte through their API and analyzed comments from 18 pages of “VK communities” in various regions of Russia, focusing on large cities. These so-called “typical” communities post news, photos, and stories of everyday life in the city. Our analysis included comments on the last 10 stories, memes, or photos connected to the Russian war with Ukraine or its consequences, including international sanctions and actions of the Russian government. We scraped on March 10 and collected stories from March 4–8. There were over 21,000 comments in total. A downloadable link to the list of news stories is available here. 

We ran a computational text analysis which included finding word and phrase frequencies. For the last stage, we also produced a “words in context” analysis and attached negative or positive meanings to frequent phrases around three words: WAR, PUTIN, and the letter Z, and explored the narratives behind some of them. For the analysis of pro-war, anti-war, and neutral meanings, we used four independent coders and only assigned the meaning when the majority of them agreed. 

2. Results

2.1 War is War

Computational text analysis of Vkontakte comments from 18 “VK communities,” March 4-8, 2022, collected March 10, 2022.

In spite of the bans on using the word “war,” it was used hundreds of times, as is visible on this chart: the word WAR is the 4th most used word in user conversations. The word PEACE is the 9th most used word. “Russia,” and “the country” is the most popular, as are “Ukraine” and “people.” Words about sanctions such as “sugar,” of which there is a shortage thanks to panic buying, “prices,” “money,” and “work” are also present. “USA” and “Z,” both propaganda-related words, are not among the most popular but are on the list, nevertheless. 

In order to understand the wide usage of the word “war,” we analyzed the word in context. The two authors read all the most frequently extracted phrases where the word “war” was used and coded them as having a negative (anti-war) or positive (pro-war) meaning, where possible. We cite here some of the comments to show the narratives behind them. In addition, we looked at the usage of the surname Putin, in different forms, in the context of most common phrases and the narratives behind them. The next section shows word clouds and classifications of frequent phrases and narratives in these comments.

2.2 War in context. “We are talking about war here”

Word cloud 1: phrases around the word “WAR.” Sources: VK comments on 180 news stories in regional groups;  WordStat9: R-Studio: own analysis. Phrases in Russian are downloadable here.

We were particularly interested in how the word “war,” prohibited in Russia from March 4, was talked about on VK. It was used a great deal — much more than the official term, “special operation,” used by the Russian government. This suggests that people do understand that the “operation” is in fact, a war. There were anti-war, pro-war, and neutral narratives describing the war.  Apart from our analysis in the Civic Media Observatory, there are some examples of comments below. 

Anti-war narratives:

Among the anti-war narratives, we saw many references to Nazi Germany. Russia was equated with Germany in the year it occupied and annexed Czechoslovakia. Others use citations from the book “Night in Lisbon” by Erich Maria Remarque to describe Russia. People stated that Ukrainians are a “fraternal” people, that this war is “forced” upon Russia by Putin, and that it causes misery and harms the civilian population, including women and children. There were narratives about the war “again in someone else’s interests,” not Russia’s. We also observed calls to use “your own judgment” and not to “blindly believe everything you are told.” A lot of people were concerned about “young children” (soldiers) that are being sent to the war without warning or consent. Others suggested that “the dictator” (Putin) will soon be “finished.”

Any dictator ends his existence by arranging wars, because for a dictator this is the last chance to still sit on the throne. And such dictators are usually betrayed by those closest to them. The clock is ticking, it won't be long.

I have a brother there, he refuses to go (fight), among all of them sent to battle, only 4 people  returned …. the army gave dry rations with a shelf life until 2015, there are some real chairs in tanks …. Our gunners stupidly extinguish peaceful and residential areas …. what kind of war is this, what kind of conquest is this, fuck us Ukraine, now the whole world will put us in the ass in a “polite” way and we will hang around there with this distraught VVP (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin) like in North Korea …..Let's not be afraid to go out and declare our values ​​and interests, because if we keep silent now, then we will be eaten one by one by our CHK (reference to military units during Stalin era, which were allowed to shoot people without any legal proceedings) pulling us out like in the 30s

Pro-war narratives: 

Pro-war narratives claimed that the war was also “forced” on Russia but by either external forces, such as the USA or Zionists, or by Ukrainian “nationalists.” For example: “First they invaded Russia.” A lot of conspiracy theories are included, both about the “evil West,” as well as “evil oligarchs” who are bad for Russia. They suggest the war was initiated by Putin to stop “them” from harming Russia.  

I AM APPEALING TO THE REAL RUSSIANS WHO REALLY LOVE THEIR HOMELAND! Putin V.V. removes Russia from the influence of America and Europe. Himself out of the influence of the oligarchs. The process is underway. This does not suit the West. This does not suit some people in our country. Putin has many enemies. A coup d'état is being prepared. The overthrow of Putin is being prepared. America spares no expense for this, and there are people in the country who are ready to do it. Now in Russia there is an information campaign against Russia and Putin. Part of this war is a deliberate attempt to create a negative attitude among Russians about what is happening in the country, to arouse dissatisfaction with Putin's policies. A disgruntled people will more willingly support a coup. We already know how coups d'état and the overthrow of presidents end. A recent example is Ukraine. Maidan just wanted to change the president, and as a result, the whole country became ‘Maidan’.

Other narratives surrounding the word War in VK discussions (in English) can be viewed here.

2.3 Putin in Context

“On the 24th of February I finally woke up… 24th of February will be the beginning of an end of VVP.” This section lays out the frequent phrases and narratives around the word “Putin.”

We noticed unusual activity around the name Putin, including identical comments under identical news items on the “operation,” which suggests the possibility of coordinated activity. We also found many negative narratives about the Russian president.

Word cloud 2: phrases around the word “PUTIN.” Sources: VK comments on 180 news stories in regional groups; R-Studio; own analysis.  Phrases in Russian are downloadable here.

Anti-war narratives:

In anti-war discussions, some users suggested that Putin is the enemy of the state. There were statements suggesting that people should “write on banknotes” that Putin is a traitor to Russia and an enemy of the state. This suggests it could also be human-bot activity. Human-bots are fake accounts on Twitter that are operated by humans, such as the famous Prigozhin troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, which was involved in misinformation campaigns around the 2016 elections in the US, among other scandals. However, many narratives say that Putin is wasting money on this war, that he does not care about the population, and that he provoked the war with a “fraternal” country. Some claim that Putin and his “friends” stole everything they could, that his popularity rating had fallen and so he is trying to boost it through a war. Others say he has “dementia” or has gone mad. There was fear of returning to the 1990s, and being like “North Korea” — isolated and poor. Examples of the comments follow, with others in the Civic Media Observatory dataset. 

Putin is already tearing his own people ideologically (using propaganda) and physically (using war). And we are no strangers to global hatred…

and for a moment imagine that everything you believe is not true and the Nazis sit in the Kremlin and control our minds and twist them as it suits them. Imagine that there are no Nazis in Ukraine, this is Kremlin propaganda… Does the letter Z remind you of a swastika??… I voted for (Putin) – sorry, but this is already too much, on February 24 I finally woke up ….. February 24 is the beginning of the end of the VVP

This means that our country under Putin's rule has become a pariah, and that's the future of Russia to which he led us.

Of course, there are pro-war narratives, too. “Putin is our president and gets out of our country if you don’t like it,” said one “patriotic” commentator. Some claimed that Putin “saved” the country in the 1990s and that he always knows what he is doing. There is a lot of blaming “other countries” for what is going on in Russia.

Wow, you deserve to get a jail sentence for at least 3 years Vladimir Sokolov. Not a war, but a special operation to destroy Nazi rot. You first heard Vladimir Putin's speech on the 24th, and you don't know about yesterday's decree? What kind of civilians? The Nazis beat the civilian population, not ours! Wake up piece of shit.

Other narratives surrounding the word Putin in VK discussions can be viewed here.

3. The letter Z: “Sad and very painful”

Word Cloud 3: Phrases around the letter “Z”. Sources: VK comments on 180 news stories in regional groups; R-Studio; own analysis.  Phrases in Russian are downloadable here.

The appearance of the Latin alphabet letter Z on the military equipment of the Russian army and further — as a “sign” of the war and “patriotic” feelings that are promoted around it — provoked many discussions, not only on middle-class populated Twitter and Facebook but also in yet uncensored VK groups. While writers in independent media and Twitter suggested that Z is a last-minute idea in a poorly prepared informational campaign, where Z means only “Western Front,” other theories also appeared. VK users mostly view this new “Z” symbol negatively, as imposed on the population. 

Anti-war narratives:

A lot of comments call the letter “Nazist” and refer to it as “Spanish shame” (a Russian saying meaning the greatest possible state of shame one can feel). Many compare it to a swastika. In these discussions, atrocities committed by the  Russian army are also described and compared to those of WWII. Many comments are about people feeling “shame” and not understanding the reasons behind this war or this letter as a symbol of it. Z is compared to SS symbols, to zombies, and to the words starting with the same letter as Z in the Cyrillic alphabet, such as “hard-drinking” (zapoi), or “dickhead” (zalupa). Other suggestions included ZARA, Zelenskyi, Zorro, Zapad (the West), and Zaebal (meaning he fucked up so much that we are already exhausted and angry). 

They are zombies in the mind of Zombies. Shame. so get away from here and do not disgrace yourself! Shame on you and your kind! I'm tired of being afraid. My Russia is killing people, ruining their lives. I disagree. I want to live in a civilized world, I want to go on vacation with my family to Europe. I'm tired of feeling like nothing. I'm going to the rally. Against the war. Against the government that makes me a beggar!Today in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Vladivostok, millions of people will take to the streets. Do not be silent! Do not be afraid! Russia should not be at war with Ukraine! Better to go out and say NO to WAR with UKRAINE than silently take part in this crime! Zadolbala (translated as I am very tired of this, this makes me sick) this window dressing already, if you support the military, then support the parents of the soldiers that are there now,  financially. That's when the support will be felt. And all this window dressing with letters is just a trend that is already being sold on T-shirts and mugs, etc. really why did they write Z in English because it means SS

During the Second World War, the “Z” sign, in the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen, denoted the building where the massacres were committed, as well as the crematorium with 4 furnaces where the bodies of people were burned

Pro-war narratives:

Although fewer than the anti-war narratives, there were also pro-war arguments present around the symbol Z. A few suggested that Z is ZA (for) victory. The commenters were then asked why the Cyrillic letter with the same sound was not used. Some people attempt to explain it using Western pop culture:

🤔 “Do you remember the movie about Zorro was fashionable? The dude who fought for justice. After that, the letter (symbol) became a symbol” “For justice” “It's simple”

Other narratives surrounding the letter Z in VK discussions can be viewed here.

We can conclude after studying narratives around keywords and symbols in VK’s discussions on the Russian war with Ukraine, that — at least on this platform, in these groups — there is no unified support for the war. VK users, usually considered more conservative, patriotic, and likely to follow Putin's lead, are at the very least skeptical and often angry with or ashamed of Russia for starting this war. They are also not afraid to call it a “war,” even after the phrase was prohibited and made punishable by a prison sentence of up to 15 years. 

We may not be able to repeat the same data collection because of the active censoring of VK’s pages and comments or the closing of APIs. However, the entire database is available for research organizations upon request. We are not making it public in order to protect those VK users who were commenting against the current military censorship rules in Russia. 

This research has limitations. We used WordStat9.0 software and R studio to analyze a large amount of text, and in the preliminary analysis performed only occasional textual analysis and coding. We cite several examples in the Civic Media Observatory and are making our database (in Russian) available for further research.

It is important to note that we analyzed the texts of the comments, not user profiles, which means that we don’t know who wrote those comments. It is possible that users on the “typical” city lists were from other cities. It is also possible that bots, either from Ukraine or from Russia, contributed to the data. However, because we analyzed the items almost immediately after their publications, we expect that the likelihood of authenticity of users is greater than it would have been if we had looked at the comments at later date. We say this because, revisiting the material, we now see evidence of bot activity in comment spaces where there was none before. 

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

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