By Bidisha Saha: In the contemporary age of war, military bloggers or milbloggers have set a trend, one that is erratically used to disperse propaganda by the apex leadership. But some recent incidents also suggest that their claims are often stemming from personal gain and disinformation. A recent report on November 20 by ISW, a Washington-based think-tank, discusses the rising influence of the milblogger (military correspondent or voenkor) community in Russia despite its critical commentary on the conduct of the war.
THE MILBLOGGER COMMUNITY
Amidst the growing antagonism in Russian media space, the milblogger community has emerged as an authoritative mouthpiece of the war. More than 500 blogs devoted to war have been launched since February 24. Nationalistic and pro-war ideologies strongly influence the narrative of the war blogged by the community. And their close relationships with the armed forces have given them a distinctive voice that is seemingly louder than the Russian MoD (Ministry of Defense) in the information space.
The outspoken milblogger community has been unvarnished in their accosting of battlefield failures, in contrast to Kremlin-approved representation on state television. The Kremlin (citadel of a Russian city) has shown a lot of tolerance for the milblogger community given its restriction of traditional outlets including foreign media.
These military correspondents employ Telegram, VK (European social network), and RuTube to informally publish self-authored content in a very casual tone. Their assessment of the war is autonomous and not dependent on information from the Russian Defense Ministry. Most of their sources operate from the frontlines or within the Russian Armed Forces, which enables them to form assessments based on first-hand accounts.
RIFT WITH RUSSIAN LEADERSHIP
As noted through their commentary on the war, most milbloggers have relayed unabashed criticism of the Russian military leaders, while some have directly blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s consistent military failures in Ukraine.
A prominent military blogger with about half a million followers on Telegram, Grey_Zone shared a letter condemning the Russian military commander for an offensive in Pavlivka on November 2. It blamed military chiefs for using soldiers as just “cannon fodder” and throwing Russian troops into a poorly planned and “incomprehensible” offensive. It even questioned the feasibility of the Pavlivka campaign. Consequently, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) rejected the claims.
In a rare statement, it said that less than one percent of the brigade was killed and less than seven percent was wounded and that Ukrainian forces suffered higher losses instead. However, the Russian MoD’s public response to the milblogger missive indicates that the milblogger community has “considerable leverage” to shape MoD’s interaction in the information space.
“Discourse regarding the widespread failures of the Russian military establishment has pervaded beyond the microblogger information space and is increasingly coloring social dynamics. The Russian MoD’s failure to properly address these systemic issues and their root causes will likely exacerbate these societal tensions throughout the war,” reports ISW, an American think-tank.
THE WARGONZO’S CLAIM
Russian military blogger Semyon Pegov, the creator of pro-war telegram channel WarGonzo, announced the existence of “hit-lists”, reportedly originating from the Russian MoD, on October 14. Pegov accused “individual generals and military commanders” from the Russian MoD of creating a list of bloggers who the ministry intends to prosecute for discrediting Russia’s handling of the war. The original post garnered 2.8 million views. His post started a discussion about censorship among prominent pro-war bloggers. However, just one day later, he reversed his statement.
PUTIN’S SELECTIVE FAVORITISM FOR MILBLOGGERS
Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the milbloggers from MoD attacks and defended their independence even though he continued to increase oppression and censorship throughout Russia.
After War Gonzo’s claim, there was a public denunciation of the MoD’s attempt at censorship by the milbloggers, who went on with their normal war coverage. Apparently, they secured President Putin’s support who commented on the importance of transparency and accuracy in war reporting.
Putin also promoted some recognized milbloggers to official positions, perhaps in an attempt to ensure the loyalty of this group and reach the nationalistic constituency to which they speak, reports ISW. Alexander Kots, who was a correspondent for a daily Russian tabloid newspaper and also a milblogger with over half a million followers, was appointed as member of the Russian Human Rights Council on November 20.
Previously, he also met some prominent milbloggers and invited them to his annexation speech. Putin continues to “double down on support for the independence of milblogger reporting”. As per the analysis of ISW, Putin realizes that the Kremlin along with the MoD has “lost” the trust of Russians and now they need to rely on the pro-war voices of the bloggers, which nationalistic Russians find authentic, in order to retain support for the increased number of sacrifices that he is demanding.
THE “RYBAR” INVESTIGATION
In early October, the threat of a Russian nuclear war started lingering in the minds of western media after a social media video was publicized where one Polish analyst identified an armored vehicle of the 12th Main Directorate of Russian MoD, which is responsible for transporting nuclear weapons.
This was added to Putin’s speech on September 30 on the annexation of the four oblasts of Ukraine, where he declared these territories as Russian land and threatened “to protect our land with all the forces and means at our disposal,” implying that Russia could use nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces if they threatened to end the Russian occupation, created an atmosphere of tension. The situation was calmed down by military analysts after several days of grinding into explaining to the public that it was not about preparing for an imminent nuclear strike.
The original source of the video was traced to the pro-war Telegram channel, Rybar. The Bell also managed to find out the identity of one of the creators of the channel – “a political strategist, a representative of the old aristocracy” – his name is Denis Schukin. He was also a former employee of the Russian MoD’s press service.
Rybar constantly emphasizes that it has many pro-Russian subscribers in Ukraine who help the channel collect data. But the creators collect the bulk of the information from high-quality monitoring of social media as well as from open-source data analysis tools (OSINT).
The Bell also reported that Rybar’s Telegram following increased sharply in September and October to over a million followers amid the Ukrainian counter-offensives in the east and south and the partial mobilization of Russian troops.
REASON FOR RISE OF MILBLOGGERS’ COMMUNITY
According to Brand Analytics, a Russian statistics company, the number of daily active users on Telegram has increased by more than 58% after the ban of Facebook and Instagram, which are recognized as extremist organizations. The growth of users on Telegram and the rising number of milblogging channels indicate that the Russians do not trust the official narrative by MoD and consequently they have shifted their interest to raw and unbiased reporting.
The Russian government is increasing its control of Russian information space as said by a Russian milblogger. He also commented that it “looks like a kitten against a rhinoceros” compared with western “think tanks”, and “independent media”.
On November 21, the Russian news outlet Kommersant reported that a bill will be introduced before the end of 2022 by the Russian State Duma on the regulation of online “recommender” algorithms. It will allow the government to turn off specific algorithms, and prevent manipulation by digital platforms. “Social networks, video hosting, online cinemas, search engines, marketplaces, and other services fall under the subject.”
Some Russian milbloggers responded to the speculation and said that such “recommender algorithms” create “information bubble” around us that makes it harder for nations to disperse propaganda due to the prevalence of personally tailored information.