The next presidential elections in Ukraine will be the main goal for the Russian propaganda machine, which not missing opportunities to expand its influence in any country where its geopolitical interests are present. At the same time, the domination of Kremlin narratives in Ukraine is significantly higher than in any other country where interference operations in the electoral process were carried out.

The complexity of the situation is due to the fact that in Ukraine there is not only a pro-Russian political lobby that has a certain support among the population, but also a very numerous network of media resources that perform the functions of spreading Moscow-friendly narratives, as well as the vulnerability of Ukraine’s cyberspace to the attacks of Russian Federation. But first of all the bet will be placed on the pro-Russian candidate, public or veiled format.

Hidden and public

The presence of a public candidate of pro-Russian views will allow consolidating the part of the population around him that continues to adhere to anti-Ukrainian views. A veiled pro-Russian candidate will allow bringing pro-Ukrainian voters to his side. At the same time, the opposite and identical slogans will be used, as it was conducted during information operations in European countries and the USA.

Taking into account the socio-psychological factor, the general narrative will be the dissemination of information that undermines social and public peace, focuses attention on the unfavorable economic situation of the country, and distorts facts and real statistical data. Slogans will be distinguished by the presence of peacekeeping notes among pro-Russian lobbyism, in particular, calls for peace, while a candidate oriented toward a pro-Ukrainian voter will rely on the helplessness of the Ukrainian army to the aggressor because of the “incompetent leadership of the country.”

The candidates will be supported primarily by pro-Russian information resources, television channels, newspapers, radio stations and Internet sites. At these resources, experts, political scientists and influential media personalities are expressing pro-Russian views of an open or latent nature now. There will also be a bet on foreign experts, which have a sufficiently large amount of Moscow propaganda at their disposal.

The power of social networks

In addition, in order to create an appropriate public reaction among the population, a resource that was not at the disposal of the Russian Federation during its information operations in the EU and the US countries, namely, exacerbation of the situation at the front, could be involved. The escalation of the conflict in the Donbass can be directed to enhance not only panic, but also increase the degree of distrust to the current government.

Examples of how the Kremlin can use negative social factors we could see the German elections to the Bundestag, when Kremlin propaganda stimulated anti-immigration sentiments among the population.

I would like to dwell separately on the use of the social resources factor in the course of the Kremlin’s information operations to interference in elections in other countries, in particular in Ukraine. At the same time, when we talk about cyber threats, it implies not only the notorious interference through hacker attacks, but also large-scale information and psychological operations in social networks.

The vulnerability of users of social networks (SN) is that they sometimes cannot always know how to protect themselves from malicious content. And if the choice of TV channels, newspapers and radio is provided directly to a person, then advertising or content can be imposed on him in the CN, regardless of his desire. In particular, during the presidential election in the United States on Facebook, not only the content discrediting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was distributed, but also for a number of other purposes that influence on the elections.

But not only advertising can become a tool for disseminating distorted information in the SN. Practically on all resources that are popular among Ukrainian users, there is a large army of so-called bots (programs posing as human beings), trolls (people acting as commentators and distributors), as well as opinion leaders that are used by Russia to popularize bogus stories, fakes or opinions.

So, in April 2015, using the open source tools of NodeXL, Internet explorer Laurence Alexander collected and visualized data on almost 20,500 pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, revealing a huge range of attempts to manipulate information in Runet. At the same time, 17,590 Twitter accounts had strong signs of bots.

In 2013, in another segment of the social network, such as LiveJournal, pro-Russian publics and authors began to form in the Ukrainian segment of the resource, which very quickly gained popularity due to a large influx of readers of dubious origin. And although this resource is not as popular among the Ukrainian segment as Facebook or Twitter, its advantageous quality for propaganda is the presence of excellent content indexing in search engines. Meanwhile, today almost the entire Ukrainian segment of LiveJournal is filled with materials from pro-Russian authors.

Thanks to the combination of the work of hacker groups and information support in social networks, Russia will be able to very successfully carry out information and psychological impact on the electoral process in Ukraine, thereby providing important support, in addition to financial and media, to both its candidates and topics requiring mass distribution.

In such unfavorable conditions, the first thing that comes to mind is a large-scale blockage of pro-Russian resources. However, this may provoke a response in the form of accusations of Ukraine in violating freedom of speech and activating the pro-Russian lobby in Europe, which will implant this narrative among the European community.

Studying the methods of interference in the elections of a number of countries, it can be concluded that much of the topics and information used by Russian propaganda are fakes and distortion of real data, events, etc. Therefore, one of the most important moments in the face of opposition to Russian propaganda is the organization of operational groups to dethrone fakes and any false information that plays to the benefit of the interests of the Kremlin.

However, the mere fact of having a quick response to fakes means nothing — an important element is also the dissemination of a refutation of lies. Moreover, the distribution should cover not only by Ukrainian resources with an audience of pro-Ukrainian views, but also have access to the Runet segment.

In a complex of powerful and operational counter-propaganda, as well as ensuring the cybersecurity of important state-owned sites, we can build a sufficiently effective barrier to counter Russian influence in our information space.

The next step could be tightening control over content that is published both on Internet resources and on TV, radio, and print media. And it is not so much about censorship, but about the authenticity of published materials and topics. With a well-established verification of the authenticity of facts, it is not difficult to promptly catch Russian propagandists in a lie, which in the future may be the reason for more stringent measures applicable to their activities.

Military-political columnist Alexander Kovalenko, IR