philosopher and journalist, director for analytics at Internews Ukraine
and chief editor at UkraineWorld.org
How Anti-Western Actors in Ukraine Are Using
Pro-Russian Troll Armies to Push Their Agenda
Anti-Western propaganda is typical for Putinist Russia. But over the past few
years, it has also been massively proliferating in Ukraine.
studies the narratives and practices of anti-Western actors in Ukraine in
reports which you can follow on the UkraineWorld website. These actors, linked to pro-Russian parties and Ukrainian oligarchs,
broadcast the narrative that Ukraine is under the 'external governance' of the
West, and that it should break free from the control of the IMF", Soros,
America, Bill Gates, and other supposedly malign Western actors. They also work
hard to discredit Ukraine's pro-European reforms.
To promote their narratives,
anti-Western actors in Ukraine are actively using the concerted actions
of troll armies. These troll armies massively retweet their content,
thus multiplying their messages and making them more visible on social
In this study, we dig into
these actors' concerted (dis)information behaviour and reveal
networks of fake fans -- those 'ordinary soldiers' which
pro-Russian and anti-Western actors are using in their information warfare
against Europe, the US, the IMF, and Ukraine's sovereignty.
A POPULAR ANTI-WESTERN BLOGGER AND POLITICIAN
MASSIVELY EMPLOYS PRO-RUSSIAN TROLLS
Anatoliy Shariy is a
popular blogger and politician. He is the head of the "Party of Shariy",
whose popularity has been increasing in Ukraine. He has heavily criticized the
Euromaidan of 2013-2014 and Ukraine's post-2014 authorities. UkraineWorld often
tracks his messages in the chorus of Ukrainian anti-Western actors.
His commentary is often
politically incorrect, frequently featuring hate speech and
derogatory statements against his opponents. His narratives often align with
those of Russian propaganda. He also echoes Russia's domestic information
agenda, mostly by mocking Russia's anti-Kremlin opposition.
In our study, we find that
Shariy is likely to be massively using pro-Russian or Russia-based trolls.
His tweets are often shared by accounts which tweet (mostly re-tweet)
pro-Russian, pro-Putin and anti-Western content.
We analyzed 200 accounts among
Shariy's recent followers (as of July 2020) with the help of Botometer,
an online service helping to identify possible trolls/bots.
Out of these 200 accounts of
Shariy's recent followers, Botometer identifies only 45
(22,5%) as "normal". 72 are likely to be trolls/bots
(they have 2,5 of higher Botometer score); 83 are inactive accounts
mostly without activity histories or user pictures. For the most part, they
didn't have activity in July 2020, when we tracked them, nor did they two
months later in September. If they are trolls, they are 'sleeping trolls' used
primarily to increase someone's audience in social networks.
The figures mentioned above
make the ratio of suspicious to normal accounts
very skewed; 77,5% are suspicious, while only 22,5% are 'normal'. A table
with the 200 accounts we examined can be found here.
Another point we looked at was account handles. Out of 200 accounts we
analyzed, 96 (48%) had handles which were just random
combination of characters or names with random numbers, like @quY2bLTSP2OVQ6Y,
@OxDo0dxDlTqzO2L, @67hwx9ucpY2n5zL, @OxDo0dxDlTqzO2L, @lxn3eVB0x4Ai39r,
@hD9OPVYTBnsyjqG, @6VoUnZAXgmK4ShV, @q4VDxjnkDGjJf4w .
It is highly unlikely that a real person would create an account with such a
long and difficult handle to memorize and repeatedly type.
48% of the new Shariy followers we analyzed have handles of random
combination of characters. They are likely to be trolls or bots
Let's have a look at some of
the specific accounts which retweet Shariy. For example,
@belka20608596 does so on a regular basis: its timeline is full of retweets
from Shariy's Twitter or from Sharij.net. It seems that @belka20608596 was
created exclusively to promote the messages of anti-Western actors in Ukraine:
it follows only 9 accounts, all of them well-known for their anti-Western
Or take another Sharij follower: @1102margoMargo
As you can see from the
timeline and self-description, it is an account of a self-described Russian
patriot, with Russian flags both in its name and in its self-description. The
user declares themselves to "love Russia", is an "ordinary
Russian person" and is "non-tolerant". Its background picture makes reference to Russia's exhaustively-promoted tropes of
its 'Great Victory' during World War II.
However, this account has
an insane number of tweets -- 64,000 since its creation in August 2019 . 64 000 tweets in one year means an
average of 175 tweets per day, meaning a tweet every
8-9 minutes, 24/7 without a single day's pause. This is certainly not genuine
A Shariy 'fan' posted 64 thousand tweets in a single year, averaging 175
tweets per day
Twitter recommendations of accounts similar to "Margosha" lead us
to other accounts with very similar characteristics.
@BvSb0cjTqatJbIs has 46,000
tweets since December 2019; @FQ38SxwxZqVwZcV -- 95,800 Tweets since
January 2017; @mqvMWylYnhiPwR1 -- 62 000 tweets since November
2018 (its slogan is "For Putin!"); @Lora020563 -- 274,7 thousand tweets
since March 2016; @Animala55 -- 177 900 tweets since October
2011 (its slogan is "Crimea is ours, Donbas is ours, Putin is my
president, born in the USSR, Ukropithecs and liberasts go away")
All of those accounts -- and, presumably, hundreds of others -- have
similar traits. They
<![endif]>massively retweet others' content;
pro-Kremlin rhetoric with entertainment staff (posting pets, mems,
funny videos etc); and
<![endif]>they have a
clear pro-Kremlin affiliation. Some of Shariy's followers are part of this
There are many other Russian trolls among Sharij's followers. Take, for
example, @batchIrU571 -- 136 400 tweets since January 2015, of mostly
pro-Kremlin content. It had 131 000 Tweets in late July 2020, and 136
thousand in late August 2020: 5 thousand tweets in one month, i.e. 200 tweets
Or take accounts which retweet
Sharij's posts -- for example, a post about Navalnyi poisoning:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@AlexVol45527695 - 27,3 thousand tweets since January 2019, no
profile picture, strange handle, massive retweets of pro-Kremlin tweets on
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@W6OI9tC8qylBhT3 - 11 thousand tweets since June 2019, strange
(stolen?) profile picture, random combination of symbols in the handle, massive
retweets of pro-Kremlin tweets on Twitter in various languages -- English,
Russian, Arabic, Korean, etc
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@ElenaIvankova - 337 thousand tweets since October 2010, mostly
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@G6zvfN8JsmFnPix - almost 4 thousand tweets since May 2020 (33
tweets per day), Russian flag on the profile picture, mostly retweets of
pro-Kremlin or entertainment content
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@JuriyJushin - 112 000 tweets since April 2016, mostly
retweeting pro-Kremlin content
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@Arcadiy005 - mostly retweeting pro-Kremlin content, messages in favor of
pro-Russian separatist "republics" in the Donbas, or entertainment;
often retweets Sharij
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@azctec - 50 800 tweets since November 2014, no profile
picture, mostly pro-Kremlin content
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@brintexcorp - no profile picture, mostly retweets of pro-Kremlin content
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@YoushkaYou - Putin on profile picture, 26 000 tweets since
December 2011, mostly pro-Kremlin content
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@ats369777 - abstract profile picture, 67 000 tweets since
September 2016, mostly pro-Kremlin content
These trolls are integrated
into primarily Russian information content and agenda. On 8-9 September,
when we were writing this article, their major topics were poisoning of Russian
oppositionist Aleksey Navalny, the sentencing of Russian actor Mikhail Yefremov
and events in Belarus. On all those topics, these trolls / bots have promoted
Kremlin narratives -- and helping anti-Western actors in Ukraine, like Shariy,
Portnov, Medvedchuk, Lukash and others to promote anti-Western agenda too. They
are most probably not trolls created in Ukraine for the purposes
of Ukrainian politics; they are trolls integrated into the Russian information
This short analysis can reveal two things: a) Shariy is likely massively
using trolls / bots to promote his messages; b) many of these "fake
fans" are closely linked to Russia and are being employed to promote
pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin narratives.
FORMER YANUKOVYCH ALLIES ARE USING TROLLS TO
PROMOTE AN ANTI-WESTERN AGENDA
Trolls with Russian links are
also used by former Yanukovych allies like Andriy Portnov and Olena
For example, Portnov, a former Yanukovych ally and current promoter of an
anti-Western agenda in Ukraine, has tried to enlarge his audience with the help
of bots tweeting around the clock.
Andriy Portnov has been very active in recent years in his efforts to
discredit the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity and the country's subsequent
pro-European reforms. He is also among the top actors promoting anti-Western
agendas, according to UkraineWorld's investigations.
In our current study, we look
at accounts which retweet Portnov's posts. We found accounts tweeting
with superhuman speed and regularity -- some of them up to 70, 100 or
even 180 tweets per day!
Portnov shares followers with Victor Medvedchuk, Russia's key ally in Ukraine. For example, look at @I8AKwnkQvkEnwIy,
which calls itself ?. Lawyer.
law criminal. It was created in February 2019, and has made 13 000 tweets
since then, i.e. about 23 tweets per day. @Eli3arija, another fan of
Medvedchuk, also regularly retweets Portnov.
Here are some of the other probable bots who frequently retweet Portnov:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@mikonoritako - 365.6 thousand tweets since April 2015, i.e. 182
tweets per day , although the account has less
than 1,000 followers.
- 12.3 ? tweets since October 2019 ?, i.e.
about 45 tweets per day. This account actively retweets Sharij, Portnov and
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@CeoHTsbcnb0eKBx - 1641 tweets since January 2020, but has only 5
followers -- a big question arises for whom this account is tweeting (if it
belongs to a real person?). It has no profile picture and retweets mostly
pro-Kremlin content or messages from the Yanukovych entourage
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@xjXTUay3jCejOE7 - 1432 tweets since March2019. Has no profile picture.
Massively retweets either entertainment or posts by anti-Western and
pro-Russian actors, including Portnov, Lukash, Sharij and Azarov.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>@aurika68 - 22.2 thousand tweets since August 2014, i.e. 18-20
tweets per day. Has a picture of Alexander Zakharchenko (former leader of the
so-called "DNR" killed in August 2018) as its background.
- 10 thousand tweets since December 2016 ,
13 thousand likes but only 53 followers. Retweets pro-Kremlin and pro-USSR
31,5 thousand tweets from March 2014, 23,4 thousand likes but only 101
followers. Retweets Sharij, Strana.ua etc.
It is interesting also to look at this fan of Mr Portnov:
It has 186.7 thousand tweets since May 2014 -- over 70 tweets per
day. It also left 154 thousand likes during this period.
According to the statistics traced by SocialBlade, it has made an average
of 700 posts per week in 2020, i.e. 100 posts per day.
It repeatedly retweets pro-Kremlin content, especially related to Russian
domestic propaganda agenda.
We can compare this profile
with "Margosha", the fan of Mr Shariy which we analyzed earlier. Both
have a tremendously high number of tweets, and both have emblazoned their
profiles with "Great Patriotic War" propaganda images.
Trolls/bots post huge number of tweets - dozens or hundreds per day
politician, Olena Lukash, a former member of the Party of Regions and
justice minister in the Azarov government under Yanukovych, also has suspicious
accounts promoting her content.
We analysed Lukash's 200
most recent followers (as of July 16) with Botometer. Of those, 67 are
likely bots with bot scores higher than 2.5 .
Another 45 followers have empty timelines. Ten more are
protected accounts with very few followers, which are also suspicious. This
leads us to conclude that about 61% of Lukash followers (out of the
200 we analyzed) are suspicious accounts likely to be bots or trolls.
It is interesting that
the Olena Lukash's and Andriy Portnov's fake audiences overlap: both
Ukrainian revanchist politicians have many common followers on Twitter, most of
whom are likely bots or trolls
An analysis byTweepDiff shows that Olena Lukash and Andriy Portnov, who often share similar
messages on various topics, have 4179 common followers on Twitter.
This figure amounts to 24,5% of Lukash followers and 43,1% of
We analysed the 100 most recent common followers of Lukash and Portnov as of July 20. Of them, 38 are most
likely bots with bot scores higher than 2.5, according to Botometer.
Another 19 recent followers have empty timelines. Six more are
closed accounts with very few followers, which are also suspicious.
TROLLS ARE ALSO BEING USED BY A KEY KOLOMOYSKYI
Oleksandr Dubinskyi is one of
the key information allies of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the former
owner of PrivatBank and one of the most vocal opponents of the IMF in Ukraine.
As an MP from the Zelensky's "Servant of the People" Party, Dubinskyi
uses highly aggressive rhetoric and hate speech against the proponents of
Ukraine's pro-Western orientation, calling them "sorosiata" (roughly
"Soros piglets"). UkraineWorld hasstudied this rhetoric in
our regular digests.
However, Dubinskyi is also
likely using bot armies. Our analysis of over 200 accounts of Dubinskyi's
Twitter followers on Botometer shows a remarkably large share (47%) of
suspicious accounts whose bot-likeliness score is over 2.5. 36% of
accounts contain no timeline, which also makes them highly likely to be bots.
Together, about 83% of Dubinskyi's followers in our selection are
likely to be bots or trolls. Only 17% are "normal" accounts.
In 2014, when the Revolution
of Dignity (Euromaidan) ousted authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych
and Ukraine chose a path of reforms toward a more democratic and transparent
society, the country's pro-European choice seemed to be irreversible.
After six years, however, the
country's information space has been flooded with anti-Western narratives promoted
by pro-Russian or anti-Western oligarchs, as previous UkraineWorld studies show. The poll ratings of anti-Western parties like the Opposition
Platform For Life and the Party of Shariy are
The audience of these
narratives and parties is real and massive. In this study, however, we
have also shown how these anti-Western actors are prolifically using fake
fans and fake audiences to organize concerted (dis)information
behaviour and promote their messages. Quite often, the behaviour of these
troll armies is linked to a pro-Kremlin agenda. We have also showed how Russian
trolls have promoted Kremlin narratives on such important topics as the MH-17
There is a link between fake
supporters and real supporters. Fake supporters help anti-Western
actors make their narratives more visible on social networks, and to
gain real supporters. More importantly, however, this inauthentic behavior
seeks to deceive the public discourse by pretending that the messages
they sent are liked and shared by real people.
It is also important to note
that these anti-Western actors, while often using virulent hate speech
against democratic values and Western civilization, are using Western
instruments (social networks like Twitter or YouTube) to undermine the very
culture that created them.
was written within the framework of the project "Sharing Ukrainian
experience in building resilience to hybrid warfare" which is being
implemented by NGO Internews-Ukraine with financial support from the NATO
Information and Documentation Centre in Ukraine. This article is the sole
responsibility of its authors and might not reflect the official position of
23 09 2020