the influx of Russian Misinfo on the r/russia subreddit
On March 1, 2022, five days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Reddit quarantined its subreddit r/Russia due to a high degree of Russian propaganda and outright false information. The quarantine prevented r/Russia users from entering the subreddit unless they acknowledged the high degree of misinformation. In this blog post, I take a look at how r/Russia went from a community that talked about movies with Russian subtitles to a hotbed of Russian misinformation, forcing Reddit to implement a quarantine.
Activity in r/Russia Before and After the Russian Invasion
Throughout early 2022 as tensions between Russia and Ukraine increased, activity on r/Russia increased substantially. Beginning in 2021 and continuing into early 2022, Russia deployed approximately 190,000 Russian soldiers to Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders. Initially, users flooded into r/Russia to discuss this Russian military build-up on the border of Ukraine. Going from a daily average of fewer than 500 comments and 50 submissions a day in the first weeks of January, the subreddit activity jumped to nearly 9500 comments and 400 submission comments the day before the Russian invasion.
As seen below, moderators deleted a large percentage of comments on the r/Russia subreddit. The rate at which comments were deleted picked up substantially at the beginning of February as Ukraine and Russia were on the verge of war. Over 26,614 comments (24.9%) were deleted or otherwise removed between January 1 and March 15. The number of comments that were deleted peaked on February 28th, the day before Reddit quarantined the subreddit, at 74.8% of comments.
During the week of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, an increasing amount of new/"freshly made" (created in the last 7 days of posting) Reddit accounts made submissions in r/Russia. 25% of the Reddit submissions on February 28th that were posted were from "freshly created" accounts.
Examining the submissions made by users with freshly made Reddit accounts, we see that many of them were highly pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian. As seen below, the first five submissions made by such accounts on February 28th, parroted Russian disinformation narratives or were anti-EU in posture.
Dear kids, did you know that every time you say “SLAVA UKRAINE!” you actually say banderites salute? Oh, have you heard about those Ukrainian heroes? You should read more about it - it's very fascinating reading, I guarantee it!
Topics Analysis of Conversations in r/Russia
To try to get a better understanding of the topics mentioned on r/Russia, I finally ran a topic analysis algorithm called Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) on the Reddit comments posted between January 1 and March 15. LDA gives a sense of the different ideas being spread on the r/Russia subreddit as well as their growth over time. Below, I plotted the top 10 topics within the subreddit and their volume of comments over time.
Conversations surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine (topics 1, & 3) continually increased in 2022 before plummeting after the Russian invasion and the Reddit quarantine. A large percentage of conversations surrounded the role of the United States and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) within conflict (topics 1, 2, 3, 9) as well as the amount of perceived western propaganda about the Russo-Ukrainian War (topic 10). As argued by Russian media organizations like Russia Today and Sputnik News, the US ostensibly provoked and egged on the war in Ukraine through its rhetoric as well as decades-long policies of NATO expansionism. We see these narratives largely mirrored on r/Russia.
Throughout 2022 and spiking in February, r/Russia was flooded with Russian misinformation. As seen in this post, newly created accounts played a large role in influencing conversations on the subreddit. Conversations with pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian perspectives, including the US and NATO’s role in the Russo-Ukrainian War were particularly salient. These narratives, while deterred by heavy moderation (which deleted up to 74.8% of comments on February 28th) were not quelled until r/Russia quarantined the subreddit, shutting down most conversations.
While this analysis reveals a view of the conversations, misinformation, and behaviors on the r/Russia, it does not give the full story. In a future blog post in the upcoming week, I will show how utilizing a different approach utilizing large machine learning models can enable tracking and analysis of specific Russian disinformation narratives on Russian websites and social media as outlined in my newest research paper Happenstance.