Just For Hype: A Ukrainian PR Agency Promotes Kremlin Narratives in Regions

October 12, 2021
A Dnipro-based PR agency has launched a network of regional news pages on Instagram which regularly share Kremlin narratives.

Instagram is the second most popular social network in Ukraine. According to data from the PlusOnecommunication agency, there were 15 million Instagram accounts registered in Ukraine as of July 2021, only 1 million fewer than the number of Ukrainian accounts on Facebook.

Source: PlusOne

Even though Instagram is mostly seen as a social network for photo enthusiasts, bloggers and small businesses, it is also used by politicians and political parties. Our report “Memocracy: How Social Networks Affect Politics In Ukraine” showed that back in 2019, to successfully campaign for the snap parliamentary elections, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team merged entertainment and information to reach out to millions of Instagram users.

UkraineWorld decided to check whether the popular Kremlin narrative of Ukraine being under “external governance of the West” has had any traction on Instagram during the last year (September 24, 2020-September 24, 2021). To do so, we used data from CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook.

During our research period, there were 309 posts in which the Russian phrase “внешнее управление” was used, and 23 posts with Ukrainian expression “зовнішнє управління”. Posts in Russian had 989 interactions on average, while the average Ukrainian-language post had 417 interactions.

Source: CrowdTangle

As shown in the screenshots above, the usage of both Russian “внешнее управление” and Ukrainian “зовнішнє управління” peaked in June 2021. The most popular posts within this period quote a phrase spoken by Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his annual “direct line” press conference on June 30. “What would I meet with [Ukraine’s President Volodymyr] Zelensky for if he has given his country away under full external control? The key issues of life in Ukraine are decided not in Kyiv, but in Washington, partly in Berlin and Paris. Well, is there to talk about [with Zelensky]?” Putin said answering a question from a journalist.

This quote was posted by a number of pro-Kremlin accounts, the most popular being kremlin_russian, newssee, ntvru, kremlin__video and za_presidenta. In particular, a video in one post by the kremlin_russian account was viewed 111 thousand times.

Source: Instagram

At the same time, some of the most popular posts on this topic came from news pages about Ukrainian cities, including news_odessa, news_kharkiv, news_zp, dnepr_news, news_lviv and news_kiev. Each of these six pages posted an identical video from the “direct line” press conference and repeated Putin’s line about “external governance.” The video in the posts on these six pages garnered a total of 142 thousand views.

Source: Instagram

Putin’s speech was not the only example of this Kremlin narrative to be shared by those Ukrainian news pages. The pages also posted key takeaways from Putin’s recent article on Ukraine’s history (links: news_odessa, news_kharkiv, news_zp, dnepr_news, news_lviv, news_kiev).

Source: Instagram

Information about a “demonstration against external governance” held near the U.S. Embassy to Ukraine by Opposition Platform — For Life, Ukraine’s leading pro-Russian party led by Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk, also appeared on all the news pages (links: news_odessa, news_kharkiv, news_zp, dnepr_news, news_lviv, news_kiev).

Source: Instagram

These are only a few examples in which this network of Instagram pages amplified the narratives shared by the Kremlin and their proxies in Ukraine in unison. But do the pages themselves have any Russian connections?

A smorgasbord of news

Four of these pages (news_odessa, news_kharkiv, news_zp, dnepr_news) post content in Russian, while two (news_lviv, news_kiev) post in Ukrainian. All the pages report on a wide range of topics, including Ukrainian politics, society, economics, healthcare, as well as international affairs. The posts on the six pages are mostly identical, though they occasionally share city-specific posts about local events. The pages rarely provide sources of information. Most of the content is not outwardly pro-Russian, so it seems like editors of the pages try to take any news which might gain views without looking too much into them.

The administrators of the pages do not try to hide the fact that they are linked; in fact, they highlight it. The descriptions on each of the pages include links to five other pages from the network:

Source: Instagram

UkraineWorld also looked at how the audiences of the pages have grown over the last few years. The pages were launched in two phases: the four Russian-language pages (news_odessa, news_kharkiv, news_zp, dnepr_news) were launched in August 2018, while the two Ukrainian-language pages (news_lviv, news_kiev) were launched that December. It is worth noting that the subscriber growth trends have been very consistent on all the pages, with 40-50 thousand subscribers appearing within the first month of each page’s existence (see the graph below). This might be a sign of an inorganic audience growth. As of September 24, the total subscriber count on all six pages is 521.6 thousand.

Source: CrowdTangle

The pages’ subscribers are active. Within the last 12 months, 16 million reactions (likes+comments) were recorded on the six pages, while the videos they shared have been viewed more than 100 million times. All these Instagram users are potential recipients of pro-Kremlin narratives occasionally amplified by the network of pages.

Source: CrowdTangle

All PR is good PR?

All the six pages have links to makvin_pr, a Dnipro-based PR agency which specializes in promoting of Instagram accounts.

Source: Instagram

In one of its stories, the PR agency highlights the possibility of purchasing ads on these local news pages. Hence, it is most likely that these pages were created by the PR agency as an additional source of income.

Source: Instagram

The agency also has a website which serves as a landing page. According to information from the WhoIs database, the domain was registered in Ukraine and the website is located on a Ukrainian hosting server.

Source: GoDaddy

However, a more detailed analysis via BuiltWith, a website profiler, shows that makvinpr.com website is built on Tilda, a Russian website builder. It also uses two instruments from Yandex, a Russian tech company which is banned in Ukraine, namely Yandex Metrika (which helps track website visitors) and Yandex Bot Disallow (which protects the website from bot attacks). Furthemore, makvinpr.com uses tools from Variti, a Russian bot and DDoS mitigation solution. All of these tools have non-Russian analogs, which makes it suspicious that Makvin PR decided to use Russian services.

Source: BuiltWith

It is possible that the Dnipro-based PR agency has ties to Russia and directly spreads Kremlin narratives to Ukrainian audiences on Instagram. This subtle, proxy-reliant approach has been applied by Russian security services for the last few years. A recent example is the Russia-controlled network of anonymous Telegram channels uncovered by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) in February 2021.

However, it is more likely that the agency uses local news pages on Instagram to promote its services and also earn money from selling ads on those pages. In this case, administrators of the news pages do not put much thought into content they publish and simply choose topics likely to get the most likes and comments.

This case illustrates a broader problem in news consumption in Ukraine. According to the 2020 USAID-Internews’ annual media consumption survey, 62 percent of respondents use social media platforms to get their news. What these people see on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and other social networks are mostly low effort copy-paste news pages handled by people who look at this activity as a way to make easy money. This is a perfect environment for the amplification of Kremlin propaganda.

This article was written as part of the project "Antibot: how to resist information manipulations" which is being implemented by NGO Internews-Ukraine with financial support from the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Ukraine. This article is the sole responsibility of its authors and may not reflect the official position of NATO.

Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld and Internews