In the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Twitter accounts shared messages of support for Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
They tried to deflect criticism of the war by comparing it to conflicts instigated by Western countries. Their commentary — along with tweets from other users who condemned it — made the hashtag #IStandWithPutin trend on Twitter in several regions around the world.
While some of the accounts said they were based in Nigeria and South Africa, the majority of those with a declared location on Twitter claimed to be from India and targeted their messages to other Indian users, researchers said.
evacuating nearly 20,000 of its citizens who were in the country when Russia’s invasion began. Hundreds of Indian students remained stuck amid heavy shelling at the time. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has avoided condemning Russia, appealed to Mr. Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky, for help.
Russia’s local embassy used Twitter to instruct Indian media outlets to not use the word “war” but to instead refer to it as a “special military operation,” as media outlets in Russia have been forced by law to do. Some Indian Twitter users responded by mocking the embassy, while others chastised local media outlets as inept and needing instruction from Russia.
Pro-Russian sentiment has taken hold in right-wing circles in the United States, misinformation that has spread within Russia claims Ukrainians have staged bombings or bombed their own neighborhoods, and myths about Ukrainian fortitude have gone viral across social media platforms. But in India and other countries where social media users joined the hashtag, pro-Russian narratives have focused on ethnonationalism and Western hypocrisy over the war, themes that have resonated with social media users.
“There were dense clusters of communities engaging with it, many of which were based in India or based in Pakistan,” said Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University who analyzed the accounts using #IStandWithPutin.
It was not clear whether the accounts promoting pro-Putin messages in India were authentic, although Dr. Jones said some of the most popular ones engaged in suspicious behavior, like using stock photos as profile pictures or racking up likes and retweets despite having few followers.
blog post this month. “These accounts represent a wide range of attempts to manipulate the service — including opportunistic, financially motivated spam — and we don’t currently believe they represent a specific, coordinated campaign associated with a government actor.”
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Ongoing peace talks. During peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul, Russia promised it would “reduce military activity” near Kyiv, and Ukraine said it was ready to declare itself permanently neutral. Even so, weeks of further negotiation may be needed to reach an agreement, and Russia appears determined to capture more territory in eastern Ukraine.
But some of the accounts in India most likely belonged to real people, Dr. Jones said. “If you can get enough people spreading a message, then real people will join in,” he said. “It becomes hard to sort the organic behavior from the inorganic because it’s a mesh.”
In India, some right-wing groups have advanced similar messages. An organization called the Hindu Sena marched in support of Russia this month in the heart of India’s capital. Carrying Russian flags ordered for the occasion as well as saffron ones often flown by Hindu nationalists, participants were led by the group’s president, Vishnu Gupta.
Over 300 activists chanted, “Russia you fight on, we are with you” and “Long live the friendship of India and Russia.”
“Russia has always stood by India and is its best friend. While America supports Pakistan and does not want any Asian power to rise,” Mr. Gupta said in an interview. “We don’t believe in war. But now that it’s happening, India must go with Russia. We must make our position clear.”
Russia’s embassy in India has also used Twitter and Facebook to promote conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine and to pressure the Indian media.