The resounding explosion is only the thunderclap of the storm. Here, no alarm is ringing loudly to tell people to hide in a shelter. The fighting to repel the Russian army takes place more than a thousand kilometers away. On the terrace of this rooftop overlooking Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, Gennadiy Vorobyov has nevertheless felt the war, every day, for more than six months. Young CEO of the Bulgarian branch of the Ukrainian company Netpeak, he is a recruit of the “digital defense” of his country.
Many things have changed since the great wars experienced in Europe: we have the Internet
“A lot of things have changed since the great wars experienced in Europe: we have the Internet”, points out this expert in digital advertising and audience measurement, with Google Analytics.
His own battles are fought between social networks and search engines. Its weapons are photos, videos and texts to expose the events of the front, to gain support, to collect donations and to oppose enemy discourse. “Russia speaks of a special military operation to liberate the Ukrainian populations from Nazism and demilitarize the country. The reality is the arrival of tanks and bombardments in the cities. This is not a liberation operation but a real war with real victims. Our aim is to show it”.
Since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, about thirty employees of Netpeak, one of the largest digital marketing agencies in Eastern Europe, have fled the bombs with their families to take refuge, for a time, in Bulgaria, a peaceful country torn between pro-Western and pro-Russian influence. Their company continues its activities in the digital economy and nearly 500 employees are still in Ukraine but, overnight, it allows them to engage in the conflict.
“Our digital marketing skills help us be useful in this information war. The Net is our field, we know how to target the Internet users we need,” explains Gennadiy Vorobyov. Under the leadership of the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation, led by the young Mykhailo Fedorov, 31, the volunteers join an “IT Army” made up of hundreds of information technology companies – the only sector in Ukraine to be growing despite the war.
Accounts closed, then recreated
On the top floor of a business center in the Bulgarian capital, nestled above a vast open office space, counter-propaganda campaigns are channeled through paid publications. But the sponsored “Support Ukraine” campaigns, started on Facebook, Google or Youtube, no longer reach the Russian population. To isolate the country with the economic blockade, the American giants have closed the advertising spaces of their platforms in Russia. So, Ukrainian volunteers are also migrating to the most popular local versions: VKontakte and Yamdex.
Their accounts, once spotted or reported, are quickly shut down. Tirelessly, they create new ones and start again, again and again. In addition to this targeted advertising, 12,500 Russian citizens were contacted on their private messaging system, in particular women. The goal ? Convince companions, mothers, daughters or sisters not to let their men go to the front. Attempts at dialogue that remain, most of the time, unanswered.
The price of opinion
“Even if the Russian population sees what is happening in Ukraine, they don’t necessarily believe it,” admits Gennadiy Vorobyov, shrugging his shoulders. “Russian television’s powerful propaganda machine shows very different plans for the internet. People don’t know who to believe. People are scared: they can go to jail for dissenting opinions. And they know it”.
They are weapons. They do not shoot but they target your brain, affect your decisions, your actions and your relationships with others
If the audience 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 consciences. “The budget of the Russia Today television channel, 300 million euros per year, can afford to buy fifteen tanks. But what damage would they do with it? And what harm 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 aim at your brain, affecting your decisions, your actions and your relationships with others”. Unlike marketing applied to a business, it is difficult to show results for this battle of influence. Ukrainian volunteers cling to 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 for Ukraine to join the European Union. In three months, the 27 granted the status of a country which had been a candidate for membership since 1994.