The iron explosion is just the thunder of the storm. Here, no alarm rings loudly to tell people to take shelter. The battles to repel the Russian army are being fought more than a thousand kilometers away. On the terrace of this roof overlooking Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, Genadiy Vorobyov still felt the war, every day, for more than six months. The young executive director of the Bulgarian branch of the Ukrainian company Netpeak, is a recruit of the “digital defense” of his country.
Many things have changed since the great wars in Europe: we have the Internet
“A lot of things have changed since the great wars in Europe: we have the Internet,” points out this expert in digital advertising and audience measurement, with Google Analytics.
Its own battles are fought between social networks and search engines. His weapons are photographs, videos and texts to expose events on the front, gain support, collect donations and counter hostile discourse. “Russia is talking about a special military operation to liberate the Ukrainian population from Nazism and demilitarize the country. The reality is the arrival of tanks and bombings in cities. This is not a liberation operation but a real war with real victims. Our goal is to show that”.
Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, around thirty employees of Netpeak, one of the largest digital marketing agencies in Eastern Europe, have fled the bombs with their families to temporarily take refuge in Bulgaria, a peaceful country torn between pro-Western and pro-Russian influence. Their company continues its activities in the digital economy and almost 500 employees are still in Ukraine, but this allows them to join the conflict overnight.
“Our digital marketing skills help us be useful in this information war. The network is our field, we know how to target the Internet users we need,” explains Gennadiy Vorobyov. Under the leadership of Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, led by the young Mykhailo Fedorov (31), volunteers are joining an “IT army” made up of hundreds of IT companies – the only sector in Ukraine that is growing despite the war.
Accounts closed, then re-created
On the top floor of a business center in the Bulgarian capital, located above a huge open office space, counter-propaganda campaigns are channeled through paid publications. But the sponsored campaigns “Support Ukraine”, launched on Facebook, Google or Youtube, no longer reach the Russian population. In order to isolate the country with an economic blockade, the American giants closed the advertising spaces of their platforms in Russia. So, Ukrainian volunteers also switch to the most popular local versions: VKontakte and Yamdex.
Their accounts, once spotted or reported, are quickly shut down. They tirelessly create new ones and start again, again and again. In addition to this targeted advertising, 12,500 Russian citizens, especially women, were contacted through their private messaging system. Goal ? Convince girlfriends, mothers, daughters or sisters not to let their men go to the front. Attempts at dialogue that mostly go unanswered.
The price of an opinion
“Even if the Russian population sees what’s happening in Ukraine, they don’t necessarily believe it,” admits Gennady Vorobyov, shrugging. “The powerful propaganda machine of Russian television shows very different plans for the Internet. People don’t know who to trust. People are scared: they can go to jail for dissenting. And they know it”.
They are weapons. They don’t shoot, but they target your brain, influencing your decisions, your actions, and your relationships with others
If the viewership of the main channels controlled by the Kremlin has been declining since the war, the Russian regime would be far from giving up the fight to win over people’s consciousness. “The budget of the Russia Today television channel, 300 million euros per year, can afford to buy fifteen tanks. But what harm would they do? And what damage is Russia Today doing, day after day, with its pro-war propaganda, spreading Putin’s ideas and fake news around the world? They are weapons. They don’t shoot, but they target your brain, influencing your decisions, your actions and your relationships with others”. Unlike business marketing, it’s hard to show results for this battle of influence. Ukrainian volunteers hold on to the data. In a few months, their posts had 929 million views. Funded entirely by donations, these campaigns cost less than $900,000. The most viewed video lists the reasons why Ukraine joined the European Union. In three months, 27 received the status of a country that has been a candidate for membership since 1994.