[REPORT] Videogames, a new weapon of influence
On February 24th, Russian Armed Forces launched a multipronged invasion of Ukraine, targeting Kharkiv in particular, the country’s second largest city. Located forty or so kilometers from the border, the city is a mix of Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking inhabitants. In this metropolis of a million and a half people, the population organized to resist against Moscow’s attack. Some took up arms to support the Army, others joined medical teams or volunteer groups in charge of supply lines and humanitarian aid. Some however, like Arty and Nikolay, chose to volunteer on another front: cyberspace.
(Their story, told below, is the result of an interview for inCyber on April 1).
Respectively 30 and 33 years old, Nikolay and Arty are the managers of “Sherwood service”, the last electronics store still open in the city of Kharkiv. Despite the circumstances, the two friends decided to keep working. They repair mobile phones, computers and other electronic gadgets for the Army, volunteers and all those in need.
“The first week of the invasion, everyone was stressed and in a state of shock. We were glued to the news 24/7. We decided we needed to do something or we would go crazy. That’s why we got back to work. Now we feel better, we feel useful and our fighting spirit is keeping us going.”
Their workplace has also become their home and their shelter. Generally the workday starts at around 8:30 AM, but the first calls can come in much earlier, as early as 6 AM. They finish work at 6 PM, or later depending on the needs of their customers. However, due to the circumstances, they cannot afford to have a fixed schedule as, according to them, “people cannot survive without the tools to connect and communicate, particularly combatants.”
Even though not all “Sherwood service” employees stayed, some do their best to help the store any way they can. The business, which has a spare parts warehouse in Western Ukraine, is staying open. However the main problem remains logistical: the delivery of goods is growing more and more difficult. Orders generally take a week to arrive, sometimes more.
Videogames to fight Russian propaganda
Outside of their professional duties, Nikolay and Arty try to find free time to take their minds off things. As avid gamers, they play games such as Counter-Strike on PC. However, their gaming isn’t purely for personal enjoyment. They use online videogames to counter Moscow’s propaganda. Along with other gamers, they have put together a Ukrainian team and try to play against Russian players to talk to them about the situation in Ukraine and the suffering of the people of Kharkiv.
“We tell them we are resisting against the Russian invaders and never asked to be liberated. We don’t need anyone here, this is our home, we used to live in peace and now we are trying to be heard in Russia.” According to them, many Russians do not understand what is happening in Ukraine.
“When we communicate with Russian players through our videogames, many are in favor of the Russian invasion. I’d say that 30% of them are open to discussion, but the other 70% quickly get aggressive. They don’t believe a word we say. Russians don’t like our team name, because it comes from a very popular anti-Putin slogan, which was created by fans of our football team in Kharkiv, Metalist. When they see our slogan, they know who they’re dealing with.” (Arty).
Nikolay believes it is crucial to communicate directly with the Russians. “We try to communicate with the Russians so that they know what is happening here, this is our only objective. We want them to understand they’re also responsible. Because Russians are different from us. We are Ukrainian, we are a nation, and we know we can accomplish a lot as such. But the Russians tell us there’s nothing they can do, they’re afraid of the system, of Putin, of their government. We tell them no, you should feel responsible and at least try to do something.”
The two players and their team don’t have a website or specific platforms to fight against Russian propaganda online. They use private contacts, players met online, and also ask for help from the people of Kharkiv, many of whom have family and friends in Russia.
“We try to communicate with their family members and friends to explain the reality of the situation in our city. According to them, people in Russia have no idea what is going on here due to widespread and effective media propaganda orchestrated by the Kremlin. It is very difficult for Russian citizens to access other sources of information than the one offered by the regime.”
“There is something very strange about the Russians we have had contact with. Most of them are inclined to believe Russian media over their loved ones and families. We tell them to turn off the television, to find other sources of information, to try and think for themselves, to think critically.” (Nikolay)
The two activists admit it is difficult to post things on Russian social media, particularly on Facebook, Telegram or Instagram. Information is closely monitored and posts are erased or disappear very quickly.
An unequal balance of power
The information war between Ukraine and Russia is particularly intense and violent. In both camps, many platforms and outlets have been created, particularly YouTube channels that specifically broadcast one version of events. The intensive use of social media allows the warring parties to quickly broadcast their messaging without going through traditional media outlets, which complicates the factchecking process for journalists. Russia’s position is that is intervening militarily to “denazify Ukraine” and combat fascists. Moscow highlights the Azov Battalion, an armed group made up of Ukrainian nationalists.
The two storeowners admit “they were one of the many battalions created in 2014/2015. At the time we didn’t really have an army. In 2014, those who fought were mostly volunteers, like those in Azov. Our conclusion is that the Russians have a very rich imagination. They can say whatever they want. They deny the existence of Ukraine and our identity, which is why they call us Nazis. We support the people who fight. Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking city and there’s no problem with that. Before 2014, everything was fine. We don’t see Azov as extremists, they’re just a battalion. They were among the first to fight and they are very popular. They’re excellent fighters. Personally, we believe that when Russia comes up against a strong enemy, like Azov, they create propaganda to sabotage them, to give them a bad name.”
Nikolay and Arty admit the balance of power is fairly unequal. Despite the help of hackers from around the world, they recognize the capacities of the Russian Army’s cyberunits. “They have a lot of resources, are very well trained, and wreak havoc with their cyberattacks and the mass broadcasting of their propaganda.”
“The Russian Army knows how to self-promote on the Internet. For example, if it uses a new armored vehicle or tank, there will be many articles and reports boasting about the quality of their armament. They know how to make themselves popular. They say they have the best armored vehicles, missiles – everything that comes from the Russia is the best! Even the Americans say so! They know how to create information spaces in which people are quickly trapped and where they have the illusion of getting several different angles. Russia uses varied technological approaches to shape public opinion in cyberspace, it manages to create the illusion of providing different points of view.” (Nikolay)
Despite the unequal balance of power, the two Kharkiv gamers maintain they will keep on fighting Russian propaganda until the end.
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