Activists are using ads to sneak real news to Russians about Ukraine | #datingscams | #russianliovescams | #lovescams

He first tested the method in 2014, when Russia captured Crimea from Ukraine under another false pretext. He used location targeting to send ads to people living in Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, and show them news of the Russian invasion. It ended up in front of 1,000 pairs of eyeballs. It was a very small experiment, but it showed he was able to penetrate the Russian firewall of fake news.

Today, he’s working with around 20 fellow ad professionals in the UK on a larger-scale campaign that launched on February 27. “Our basic concept is find loopholes in the system, deliver those ads into Russia, and those ads will link people to independent news websites showing people news about what’s going on in Ukraine,” he says.

The team has been playing cat and mouse with both digital censors in Russia and the platforms through which the ads are served, both of which are highly alert to information that they want to restrict—accurate facts about the invasion in Russia’s case, and inaccurate pro-Russia narratives for the platforms.

One set of ads was banned overnight on March 3, according to Blackie, who refuses to share information about where and how the team is placing them. “I can’t talk about platforms other than to say we’re trying everything we can think of,” he says. He equates it to his day job working on marketing for biotech companies, one of which saw a positive ad promoting news of a covid vaccine breakthrough banned because of an overly censorious dragnet trying to stop anti-vax ads. “What we know from our experience is it’s possible to get around those rules if you’re determined and you don’t mind breaching Russian law,” he says.

The UK ad campaign is sending Russian recipients to “four or five” URLs of independent websites covering Ukraine in the Russian language, specifically chosen in the hope that it’ll encourage them to return to the site day after day, undermining the Kremlin’s official narrative. But social media isn’t the only forum for such activity.

“In the modern world there are a lot of places you can advertise, and we’re trying a lot of those,” he says, claiming that if he could find a way to access digital ad billboards on the Moscow Metro, he’d try seeding information there: “We’ve got a lot of experts who have devious brains trying to get around the rules.”

He has only raised £18,500 ($24,500) so far,  but the campaign has already reached 2 million people, with 42,000 clicking through to websites it promotes. More than 100,000 ads were served in the first nine hours of March 4, despite bans on some key terms used. 

Blackie is far from the only person harnessing online advertising’s ability to pinpoint specific users within Russia to raise awareness of the country’s aggressions. More than 1,300 ads mentioning “Ukraine” are currently running on Facebook and Instagram targeting users based in Russia. (A further 1,100 are running using “Украина,” the Cyrillic version of “Ukraine,” though that includes many innocuous ads picturing cats.) While Facebook isn’t as dominant in Russia as VK, the homegrown alternative, four in 10 Russians reportedly use it, while six in 10 are on Instagram.

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