The Influence of Pro-War Influencers in Russia’s Ukraine Conflict

In the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, pro-war influencers in Russia are using social media to generate significant advertising revenue. This raises concerns about the spread of war propaganda and the influence these influencers have on young Russians. The influencers, known as “Z-Bloggers” due to their support for the war often symbolized by the letter Z, share gruesome videos of drone strikes and false claims about Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Alongside this content, they also promote unrelated products ranging from cryptocurrency to fashion.

Notably, these influencers are often embedded with the Russian army and post footage from the frontlines, calling for young Russians to enlist. Since the full-scale invasion in February 2022, their number of followers on Telegram, the popular social media platform in Russia, has skyrocketed. This surge in users has led to a booming advertising market on Telegram, which the war influencers are taking advantage of.

To investigate the advertising rates, the BBC posed as hotel owners interested in placing ads on their channels. It was found that top war influencers can charge anywhere from £440 to £1,550 per post, depending on factors such as the duration of the ad being kept at the top of their Telegram feed. As these influencers typically post at least one ad per day, their potential income far exceeds the average monthly wage in Russia.

The advertising market for war influencers not only includes individual influencers like Alexander Kots and Semyon Pegov but also extends to channels with exclusive access to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Advertisers quote prices ranging from £86 to £260 per post on these channels.

While some of the Z-bloggers have prior experience in war reporting for state-run media, others, such as Maryana Naumova, lack professional training. Naumova, a former powerlifter, took a reporting course on a Wagner mercenary base before hosting her own show on national TV.

The growing popularity of these pro-war influencers is sustained by the release of exclusive videos. These videos attract a diverse following, including both domestic pro-war audiences and analysts from the West and Ukraine who seek a better understanding of the situation on the Russian frontlines. However, it is important to note that some of the videos shared by these influencers have been proven to be fake. For example, one video purportedly showing Ukrainian soldiers mistreating civilians was geolocated to an area occupied by pro-Russian forces and staged. These fake videos are part of the misinformation campaign orchestrated by the Z-bloggers to rally support for the war.

There is evidence indicating that these pro-war influencers have indeed influenced young Russians to support the conflict. Individuals have expressed how they were driven to join the fight after consuming a significant number of videos from influencers like Vladlen Tatarsky and WarGonzo. This emphasizes the impact that social media has on shaping public opinion and influencing individuals to take part in the war.

Telegram, the platform on which these influencers thrive, has addressed the rise of pro-war bloggers by highlighting its role in providing access to independent and uncensored news. The platform claims to treat all parties equally and comply with international sanctions by blocking Russian state media when required.

Additionally, President Putin has recognized and appreciated the efforts of these Z-bloggers. He appointed Alexander Kots to the presidential human rights council and included Semyon Pegov and other bloggers in a working group on mobilization. In a meeting with pro-war influencers and state media reporters, Putin emphasized the importance of the information battle and sought their support.

The presence and influence of pro-war influencers in the Russia-Ukraine conflict raise concerns about the spread of war propaganda and the distortion of reality. It is crucial for individuals to critically evaluate the information they consume on social media and be aware of the potential manipulation that can occur. The use of fake videos by these influencers further emphasizes the need for cautious consumption of content related to the conflict.

Efforts should be made to promote media literacy and educate individuals, especially the young audience, about the dangers of misinformation and propaganda. Governments and platforms should also prioritize measures to combat the spread of false information and ensure that social media remains a platform for responsible and accurate journalism.