Activists are using ads to sneak real news to Russians about Ukraine

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Many of the ads are run by the “news and media website” Ukraine War, while others are run by the “social media agency” Safe Ukraine. They include emotive videos of captured Russian soldiers tearfully calling their parents back home to reveal the reality of what war is like, alongside text exhorting Russians to speak out against the war. The project is run by Bohdana, a 33-year-old from the northwest Ukrainian city of Lutsk, who declined to share her surname. 

Another grassroots campaign is organized by the Ukrainian arm of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB). “We try to give more information about the real situation, because there’s very strict control on information in Russia, and there’s no independent media,” says Anastasiya Baydachenko, IAB Ukraine’s chief executive.

For the first week of the war, the Ukrainian advertising industry’s campaign has operated largely on Google’s advertising network—though it recently hit the buffers with the request by Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media regulator, to stop spreading what Russia deemed “disinformation” about its activities in Russia. On March 4, Google acceded to that request, temporarily halting the ability to book ads in Russia. “The situation is evolving quickly,” the company said in a statement. 

That action has scuppered some of the IAB-backed group’s plans. However, Baydachenko claims that Roskomnadzor’s decision to crack down on ads is a sign of the IAB campaign’s effectiveness.

The campaign, in which a large number of different accounts had each spent small amounts of money with Google to target demographics likely to include the mothers of Russian soldiers, will now port to Yandex. “We understand using Yandex is high risk because of its control,” she says. “That’s why it’s a long shot—but we’ll try to do it to build reach for our messages.”

Baydachenko says there are around four or five other Ukrainian initiatives operated by groups that independently set up in the first days of the war. “We’re all trying to reach Russian audiences with different messages,” she says.

The IAB’s campaign is funded by private companies as well as by donations and sponsors, who are willing to plow large sums into trying to get across the horrors of what’s going on in Ukraine at the hands of Vladimir Putin’s army. “The owners of Ukrainian businesses understand we have a crisis here,” says Baydachenko. “They are willing to spend $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, or $50,000 in order to communicate and bring information to Russia.”

Altogether, Baydachenko estimates, 10 million hryvnia ($330,000) has been spent on Ukraine-based ad campaigns trying to get more honest information into Russia in the last week. All of them are what Agnes Venema, a national security and intelligence academic at the University of Malta, calls “the 2022 version of the underground newspaper.” “People have found out that they can beat Putin at his own game by countering the disinformation in a way that allows any Russian with an internet connection to see it,” she says.