The majority of Twitter accounts that have shared messages in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin during Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine are from India, according to their self-reported location information, says a New York Times report.
These users attempted to deflect criticism of the war by comparing it to conflicts instigated by Western countries, and made the hashtag #IStandWithPutin trend on Twitter across the world.
The reports states that users who said they were from India made up nearly 11% of this hashtag trend, in the two weeks after the invasion, while merely 0.3% were from Russia during the same time, and the United States contributed 1.6%.
“There were dense clusters of communities engaging with it [the hashtag], many of which were based in India or based in Pakistan,” said Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, who analysed the accounts using #IStandWithPutin.
Other locations from where a significant amount of pro-Russian tweets came included Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.
A few days into the invasion, the Russian embassy in India took to Twitter and wrote that the Indian media has been requested not to use the word “war” but instead, to refer to it as a “special military operation.” This is notably similar to a new law in Russia that forces media there to follow the same.
“Russia did not wage a war against Ukraine and its people, but a special military operation aimed at demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, to end the eight-year war by Ukraine in Donbass. With regard to the crisis in Ukraine, the Indian media is requested to be accurate so that Indian public receives objective information,” wrote Russia in India.
Soon, right-wing groups like the Hindu Sena extended their solidarity to Putin, and even conducted rallies with Russian flags and raised slogans in support of the country.
“Russia and India have long-standing and deep security and economic relations,” said Graham Brookie, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “If you’re Russia and you’re facing increased global scrutiny, increased global closure, you look to countries like India to at least abstain from as many efforts to isolate Russia as humanly possible,” he added.
The NYT report further states that some of the Twitter accounts in question used fake profile pictures, which raised suspicion with the researchers, while others gained thousands of retweets on their pro-Putin posts, despite having few followers and lower engagement on other tweets.
Although these activities call into question the authenticity of the accounts, there is no concrete evidence that this was part of a coordinated campaign to influence India’s sentiments about the war.
Twitter is reportedly still looking into the matter, and over a hundred accounts that used the #IStandWithPutin hashtag on the platform have been suspended for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour,” after Jones’ findings were published.
“Since the war in Ukraine began, we have removed more than 75,000 accounts for violations of our platform’s manipulation and spam policy,” Sinéad McSweeney, Twitter’s vice president of global policy, noted in a blog post, earlier this month. She added, “These accounts represent a wide range of attempts to manipulate the service — including opportunistic, financially motivated spam — and we don’t currently believe they represent a specific, coordinated campaign associated with a government actor.”
Meanwhile, Jones mentioned that some of the pro-Putin accounts in India likely belonged to real people. “If you can get enough people spreading a message, then real people will join in,” he said.