Reverse-engineering the work of Telegram ‘political technologists’: Mapping entities involved in building narratives surrounding Russian President on Polish Telegram

Team Members

Kamila Koronska, Richard Rogers, Tommaso Elli


1. Abstract

The objective of this project is to map entities discussed in narratives related to Russian President Vladimir Putin since the escalation of the war in Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 in Poland. The goal is to develop an understanding of how the depiction of the Russian President has evolved over time, particularly through the lens of problematic Telegram accounts that are suspected by Polish media to have links to the Kremlin. We set out to achieve it by examining the associations of Putin, or lack thereof, with various political leaders, significant conspiracy and propaganda theories as well as historical figures, events, and references to military events including nuclear war specifically.

2. Introduction

Opinions among Polish people regarding Vladimir Putin are said to be mostly negative. According to Pew Research Centre, more than 90% of Poles view Russia as a major threat to their country, and have no confidence in Putin’s administration [Pew Research Centre, 2022]. Throughout history, Poland and Russia have experienced strained relations due to a combination of historical conflicts, geopolitical disparities, as well as concerns over Putin's domestic policies. These concerns include suppression of political opposition, allegations of elections interference and acquisitions of assassinations of journalists and political opposition members. There are also disagreements in regards to case of prominent human rights abuses such as the handling of the Kursk rescue operation and the Beslan school siege among other issues.

Despite its relatively low popularity in Poland, Telegram serves as an intriguing platform for researchers due to its limited content moderation and its appeal to those who wish to avoid surveillance by authorities. This includes individuals such as information operatives, criminals, and protesters who are opposed to authoritarian regimes. The examination of content shared on the messaging app is also significant for the work of fact-checkers. They frequently discover that propaganda messages, conspiracy theories or other false narratives originate on ‘fringe platforms’ before spreading to wider audiences using commercial communication channels (Facebook, TikTok, Instagram etc). The idea is that by improving our ability to identify problematic narratives on fringe platforms, we can increase our chances of preventing their spread at an earlier stage.

3. Narrative building blocks

Simply put, a narrative is a recounting of a series of interconnected events or experiences that unfold over time. Within a narrative, a person, object, or situation undergoes a specific type of transformation. This transformation is then evaluated or conveyed through attributions that are associated with it at different points in time [Brangingan: 1996]. In the context of our research, we approached these "attributions" as "entities" that were mentioned alongside Vladimir Putin at any given moment. By mapping these entities over time, our aim was to reverse-engineer the underlying logic behind the dissemination of these narratives and, consequently, to gain insights about possible information operations launched to improve the image of Russia's President among a sceptical Polish audience.

4. Methodology and initial datasets


The dataset is a sample of 7,145 messages sourced from 22 ‘problematic’ Telegram channels. Analysis time frame was set between 24th February 2022 and the end of February 2023. The total number of subscribers to all these channels at the time of this analysis exceeded 140,000.

We picked the problematic Telegram channels using a snowballing technique, here appropriated for querying social-media with account names, rather than queries. To get an initial list of problematic channels, we used TGSTAT Analytics view to find channels ‘mentioning’ and ‘mentioned’ by an alternative news channel - @ndp_pl, that was recognised as problematic by Polish mainstream media and disinformation researchers.

Narrative labelling

To extract various narratives we plugged ChatGPT onto our dataset containing Telegram messages in Google Sheets. Through an iterative prompt-design process, we came up with two, very specific prompts that we then run on the dataset. One after another. First, define what a narrative is and request ChatGPT to extract it from the text in a list format. Secondly, we run it again on the previous output, this time asking it to return a list of entities. We are told to define an entity as “a person, an organisation, a place, an institution, a company and an event”.

5. Research Questions

  • 1. What groups of entities were mentioned alongside Vladimir Putin after the escalation of the war in Ukraine?

  • 2. What entities emerged / disappeared over time in narratives surrounding Vladimir Putin?

  • 3. What was the purpose of these entities groups to be mentioned together with the Russian President?

6. Findings

First and foremost, it is important to note that in our sample, the discussions about Vladimir Putin are relatively minimal compared to other war-related topics, such as the presence of Ukrainian refugees in host countries. The number of Telegram messages that do not mention Putin outweighs those that do mention the Russian President. However, despite this disparity, there has been a persistent endeavour to discuss the leader of the Kremlin, regardless of the evident lack of popularity among Poles.

By examining the relationship between various entities and the Russian leader, we observe a distinct evolution in the narratives surrounding him. Initially, these narratives were predominantly centred around conspiracy theories and propaganda, detached from reality and abstract in nature, such as those about neo-nazi Deep State controlling Ukraine, or presence of US-funded biolabs. Over time, the focus gradually shifted to more explicit discussions about the potential for atomic warfare and other military events. For instance, explicit references to 'nuclear weapons' or 'nuclear threat' in connection with Putin only emerge en mass in October, despite this topic being widely discussed in mainstream media since February 24th. Two recurring themes persisted consistently: associating Russian President with other political leaders and positioning him alongside significant historical events or figures.

Tracking entities in time in relation to Vladimir Putin also allowed us to surface manipulative tactics that closely mirrored the tactics of Kremlin's ‘political technologists’ playbook. It’s been reported that planting ideas while simultaneously challenging them, causing chaos and confusion while undermining people's grasp on reality, is one of the telltale signs of Russian-born information campaigns. We have made such findings in relation to entities such as ‘Putin’ + ‘geopolitics’, ‘Putin’ + ‘Donald Trump’ where both PRO and AGAINST views were promoted. Examples below:

27th February 2022

12th April 2022

Putin framed as an anti-globalist

Putin framed as someone helping the globalists’s agenda

“Since then, the Deep State has been robbing Ukraine of its natural resources and products and has laundered over seven trillion dollars through Ukraine's neo-Nazi government. Ukraine is held hostage by the Global Elites. Putin is fighting to free the Ukrainian people from the puppet global elite of Ukrainian President Zelensky and his neo-Nazi circles dealing with trafficking in drugs and human beings”.

“Some consider Putin as someone who opposes globalists and the New World Order. Nothing could be further from the truth. Notice that thanks to Russia's attack on Ukraine, the globalists' plans are working out: the relocation of Ukrainian people to Poland, impoverishment of the population through high gas prices, hunger (for example) (...) Putin is not a saviour, just like Trump is not a saviour of humanity. Remember that what is unfolding before your eyes is just theatre directed by the globalists (...)”

25th February 2022

22nd May 2022

Conflict in Ukrainse shown as a struggle against globalism and not nazism

Putin waged the war in Ukraine to free it from ‘nazi spirits’

“(...) This war will not cause civilian deaths, or at least they will be minimised to the possible minimum. It will be a surgical war, and nations will once again become sovereign. A few thousand people might wake up. This is not a war against nations, but a colossal manoeuvre against the mad imperialism of the past centuries, and only Putin and his million soldiers could whistle at the start of the games. Just turn on the TV and see how the routine of lies from mainstream media is meticulously working. We know that to be close to the truth, we must go in the opposite direction of the official narrative. Know that Trump exists, the czar with the nations, and that everything that happens is the only way to liberation, not from Nazism, but from the demons that made some of us more and others less slaves. Never before, like now, have you given popcorn so much air. From here to there."

(...) This time, we are not heading to Berlin. We will stand on our historical borders, and all the evil Nazi spirits whom your rulers openly welcome will arrange a new crystal life, just as the Nazis did, adding circumcised reproductive organs. I appeal to all who want to live and work in peace, raise children, and befriend the nations of the world. Help Russia fight the new cancer of Ukrainian Nazism (...)

Conspiracy narratives & propaganda

During the initial months, the portrayal of Vladimir Putin in mainstream Polish media depicted him as a war criminal who violated the peaceful existence of another country. In contrast, the essay-long messages on Telegram presented an alternative outlook on current events. The Telegram channels attempted to present a more heroic image of the Russian leader, in line with the Kremlin's narrative of him as a liberator who brings order and justice to a deeply corrupted and morally degenerate country.

In the messages between February - August 2022, Putin is portrayed as fighting against various adversaries, including a cabal, a Deep State, a neo-Nazi Ukrainian government, and remnants of survivalist neo-Nazi groups linked to Bandera. He is also depicted as challenging the influence of powerful global figures such as the Rothschilds and Rockefellers. Furthermore, there are notable instances of remarkable creativity in descriptions of Putin's ‘pace-keeping’ endeavours. He is portrayed as being actively involved in safeguarding Ukrainian children from the moral deterioration in their own country by breaking child exploitation and trafficking networks operating from Ukraine. Additionally, the Russian President is said to have made significant efforts to dismantle US-funded biolaboratories operating in close proximity to the Russian border. The messages also touch upon disturbing details, especially concerning the adoption of Ukrainian children, as they reference a criminal investigation personally overseen by Vladimir Putin, which uncovered a mass grave of victims of child trafficking near the Ukrainian border. It is important to note that the Russian government's display of concern for the well-being of Ukrainian children contrasts sharply with the perception Poles have of the Russian government, influenced by their handling of the Bieslan school siege in 2004 during Vladimir Putin's administration. Thus, these messages could be seen as an attempt to reconcile the image of the Russian president as someone who cares about all human lives, including and especially - children.

Geopolitical leaders and historical events

The Telegram messages we analysed have consistently connected Putin's character and political decisions to significant geopolitical leaders, Russia's allies, as well as historical figures. Over the course of the first year since Feb 24th 2022, Vladimir Putin was most frequently mentioned in relation to Donald Trump, Volodymyr Zelensky, Joe Biden, Xi Jinping, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This was done to show similarities as well as differences in their actions. Despite the Polish Telegram as the source of messages, we saw minimal references to Putin alongside Polish politicians, with only two notable exceptions: Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk and Polish president Andrzej Duda. These however paled in comparison to how often he was linked to more recognizable political figures.

Regarding historical entities, the Russian President was frequently associated with terms like 'Russian Empire,' 'Imperial Russia,' 'Czarist empire,' that were often quoted either to dispute or confirm political analysts or politicians who tried to make sense of Russia's incomprehensible military manoeuvres.

One such message from May 2022, called acquising Putin to return to Imperial Russia to be “russophobic” in nature: “Heger explicitly stated that if Russia defeats Ukraine, Slovakia will be next. This is pure misinformation (...) Even if we consider the wildest fantasies of global Russophobes who portray Putin as a complete devil, they only suggest that Russia wants to return to the USSR or the tsarist empire”. In July 2022, there was also a notable increase in narratives comparing Putin to Catherine the Great following the publication of an article in The Wall Street Journal by Walter Maed, who suggested that watching a documentary on the Russian empress would help understand the worldview of the Russian President. Interestingly however, such analogies were not disputed or challenged in any way.

Putin, atomic bomb and doomsday plane

Tracking entities relating to nuclear war have provided a myriad of additional findings when the work of ‘political technologists’ is concerned.. First of all, we have seen that entities such as ‘atomic war’, ‘nuclear threat’, ‘START treaty’, ‘Sarmat missiles’ in relation to the Russian president were only sporadically or not all mentioned at the beginning of the conflict. This is in stark contrast to what mainstream media were talking about at the time, when reporting on Putin’s chilling TV addresses. The conversation on the problematic Telegram accounts at the time, was mostly trying to dispute the idea that Putin might want to use nuclear weapons, by calling such claims “baseless”. The problematic narratives then kept portraying the Russian President as battling a "Kiev regime" that seeks to exploit its access to nuclear energy and develop nuclear weapons.
Starting from around September 2022, the focus of the narratives shifted from Deep-State and puppet governments to (limited) discussions about factual events, such as Putin's address on the 'referendum' in occupied regions. Since then, the growing worry about the likelihood of nuclear war has become more prominent, though it is still mixed with a focus on abstract and unrealistic aspects of the narrative. For instance, the notion of a doomsday plane trailing Vladimir Putin whenever he travels abroad or the idea of 15,000 Ukrainians planning a massive orgy on Mount Shchekavitsa in response to a potential nuclear attack from Putin. The story originated from a Ukrainian Telegram account known for its playful tone, and it had been previously featured in Vice magazine.

7. Conclusions

8. References

Poushter, J., Huang, C., & Clancy, L. (2022). Spotlight on Poland: Negative Views of Russia Surge, but Ratings for U.S., NATO, EU Improve, Pew Research Centre, Available: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/06/22/spotlight-on-poland-negative-views-of-russia-surge-but-ratings-for-u-s-nato-eu-improve/

Sophia Smith Galer, (2022), Ukrainians Are Responding to the Threat of Nukes By Organising an Orgy, VICE magazine. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en/article/93anx3/ukraine-orgy-russia-nuclear

Peter Pomerantsev (2014), The Hidden Author of Putinism: How Vladislav Surkov invented the new Russia, The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/hidden-author-putinism-russia-vladislav-surkov/382489/

Walter Russell Mead, (2022), "If Putin Was a Woman..", The Wall Street Journal. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/if-putin-was-a-woman-russia-invasion-toxic-masculinity-g7-politician-ukraine-war-violence-11656952454

Andrew Wilson, (2011), "Political technology": why is it alive and flourishing in the former USSR?, openDemocracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/political-technology-why-is-it-alive-and-flourishing-in-former-ussr/

Henry Foy, "Vladislav Surkov: ‘An overdose of freedom is lethal to a state’ ", (2021), Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/1324acbb-f475-47ab-a914-4a96a9d14bac

Rogers, R. et al. (2015). “Issue Mapping for an Ageing Europe”

Branigan, E. (1992). Narrative Comprehension and Film (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315003108
Topic revision: r2 - 30 Aug 2023, KamilaKoronska
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