The Limbik Deep Dive Series: The ‘Donbas Genocide’ Theme

Updated: Aug 5

The now five-month long Russian invasion of Ukraine remains palpable in the information landscape: Kremlin-coordinated influence operations have been combining highly emotive and targeted disinformation with propaganda spamming by automated Twitter bots. These Russian information activities have had impact: Russian propaganda continues making inroads with the far-left and far-right in the West, a journalist speaks of “Kremlin’s talking points permeating not only the political discourse, but people’s psyche” in Bulgaria, while little has been done by governing institutions in targeted areas such as Europe to push back effectively against this tide of disinformation.

In the past week, Limbik noted a 29% uptick in mentions of the “Donbas Genocide” MDM theme across social media platforms. The “Donbas Genocide” theme comprises a range of narratives that purport a past or ongoing genocide against people of Russian ethnicity in the Donbas - a region in Eastern Ukraine - supposedly being perpetrated by Kyiv. This MDM theme dates back to the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014. While pro-Ukrainian forces have committed human rights violations, extensive reporting shows that pro-Russian separatist forces have committed numerous human rights violations, ranging from arbitrary detention to torture. Although some variants of “Donbas Genocide” frame this fabricated genocide claim as justification for the Russian invasion, more nuanced and underhand iterations of this narrative use it to portray the necessity of “humanitarian intervention” - as did President Vladimir Putin in his televised speech on the eve of the invasion. The emotive language of genocide and crimes against humanity as well as most people’s intuitive understanding of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ norm adopted unanimously by the international community at the 2005 UN World Summit have made the spread of the “Donbas Genocide” theme outside of Russia more straightforward.

Potential for Impact

Limbik has been evaluating the Potential for Impact (PFI) of the “Donbas Genocide’’ theme since Russia invaded Ukraine—assessing how this theme and disinformation related to Ukraine resonates with the American public, and how they are being spread by accounts outside of the U.S. PFI is Limbik’s predictive metric that combines Virality and Believability to predict both action and emotion—it assesses whether information will be believable or credible, not just if it's likely to elicit engagement online.

  • The average PFI, high theme PFI, and low theme PFI lines all refer to other themes related to Ukraine disinformation Limbik is evaluating.

  • If the PFI for a particular narrative is greater than 100, this means that this theme or narrative has a high likelihood of resonating with the U.S. population (and therefore poses a higher risk). If the PFI for a particular theme/narrative is less than 100, this means this theme/narrative has a lower likelihood of resonating with the U.S. population (and therefore poses a manageable risk).

  • Five months into the invasion of Ukraine, the PFI of the “Donbas Genocide” theme has significantly decreased in comparison with the PFI scores recorded at the start of the invasion - likely related to the military campaigns undertaken by the Russian army outside of the Donbas since.

  • The oscillations in PFI for the “Donbas Genocide” theme since April have been relatively small. The staying power of the MDM theme seems interlinked with English articles by Russian-state media that purport this narrative and subsequently get picked up by social media users or other more mainstream media.

Source(s): Twitter, Facebook

Foreign Influence

To understand the extent to which an MDM theme or narrative is being influenced by actors outside the United States, Limbik uses a Foreign Influence model to determine what percentage of related artifacts can be attributed to known or likely foreign actors. As seen above, the Foreign Influence for the “Donbas Genocide” theme has fluctuated widely since the start of monitoring. Although geographical origin from foreign post volume is spread globally, it is of note that in the February to July monitoring period, five percent of foreign post volume originated from Ukraine. Moreover, Russian state-affiliated media like Russia Today and Sputnik have overtly propagated the “Donbas Genocide” theme. As seen below, some far-right American media outlets have repeated “Donbas Genocide” claims made by Russian media almost ad verbatim.

Source(s): RT, Sputnik, Gateway Pundit

As the Donbas region remains the center of combat in Ukraine, the ethnic diversity of the region will likely continue to be exploited in Kremlin-coordinated influence operations and the “Donbas Genocide” theme will continue to be believable by some percentage of U.S. adults. However, as seen in the graph detailing week-over-week PFI progression, it is likely the narrative will have less impact as Russia continues to occupy territory outside the Donbas, requiring new justifications for its invasion.

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