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Twitter data could have been a source of Kremlin intelligence during the Ukraine conflict in 2014

Kremlin analysts could have used Twitter as a source of military intelligence to report their actions in the Russia-Ukraine 2014 conflict, according to a study.

Experts from the University of California showed that tweets tagged by residents of Ukraine could have been used to map feelings towards Russia in real time.

The map they made of the pro-Kremlin regions turned out to have a striking resemblance to the real areas to which Russia sent its special forces.

Specifically, this included Crimea and regions in the extreme east of Ukraine, where incoming forces would have been seen as liberators.

In contrast, the data could also reveal those areas where dispatch forces would have led to greater resistance and corresponding losses and costs.

The team emphasized that they are not presenting evidence that the Kremlin used Twitter to guide its Ukrainian strategy, but only that the approach would have been viable.

However, the results reveal how not only how social networks can polarize ‘opinion bubbles’, but also how they can be exploited for decision making in crisis.

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Kremlin analysts could have used Twitter as a source of military intelligence to report their actions in the Russia-Ukraine 2014 conflict, according to a study. In the picture, pro-Russia protesters meet face-to-face with riot police in front of a government building in Kharkiv in 2014

Kremlin analysts could have used Twitter as a source of military intelligence to report their actions in the Russia-Ukraine 2014 conflict, according to a study. In the picture, pro-Russia protesters meet face-to-face with riot police in front of a government building in Kharkiv in 2014

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict began in the wake of a revolution that overthrew the Ukrainian government and the removal of President-elect Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia on February 21, 2013.

The protesters, who assumed power in Ukraine, had opposed the suspension of a planned partnership with the European Union in favor of greater ties with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russia responded by treating the revolt as an illegal coup and refusing to recognize the provisional government established by the protesters.

As several anti-government and pro-government militias emerged and confronted each other, Russian special forces entered Crimea and the states of Donetsk and Lugansk, or ‘oblasts’, as of February 27, 2014.

However, these special forces, despite being backed by regular troops near the end of 2015, no longer pushed north and west towards Ukraine.

“If you are a conservative Russian military planner, you only send special forces to places where you are pretty sure they will be perceived as liberators, not as occupants,” said article author and political scientist Jesse Driscoll of the University of California, San Diego.

“A violent occupation of Russian-speaking communities who did not want the Russian soldiers to be there would have been a public relations disaster for Putin.”

“Therefore, estimating occupational costs prospectively would have been a priority.”

Experts from the University of California showed that tweets tagged by residents of Ukraine could have been used to map feelings towards Russia in real time. In the picture, Russian armored vehicles and a truck seen on a road near the city of Bakhchisarai in 2014

Experts from the University of California showed that tweets tagged by residents of Ukraine could have been used to map feelings towards Russia in real time. In the picture, Russian armored vehicles and a truck seen on a road near the city of Bakhchisarai in 2014

Experts from the University of California showed that tweets tagged by residents of Ukraine could have been used to map feelings towards Russia in real time. In the picture, Russian armored vehicles and a truck seen on a road near the city of Bakhchisarai in 2014

A map that the researchers made of the pro-Kremlin regions based on tweets turned out to have a striking resemblance to the real areas to which Russia sent its special forces. In the image, a Russian flag flies in the foreground when soldiers block a Ukrainian military base south of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 2, 2014

A map that the researchers made of the pro-Kremlin regions based on tweets turned out to have a striking resemblance to the real areas to which Russia sent its special forces. In the image, a Russian flag flies in the foreground when soldiers block a Ukrainian military base south of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 2, 2014

A map that the researchers made of the pro-Kremlin regions based on tweets turned out to have a striking resemblance to the real areas to which Russia sent its special forces. In the image, a Russian flag flies in the foreground when soldiers block a Ukrainian military base south of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 2, 2014

In his study, Professor Driscoll and his fellow political scientist Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld of the University of California, California set out to see if the pro-Russian areas of Ukraine could be determined based on the feelings expressed on Twitter.

To identify the tweets that were relevant to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, researchers began creating vocabularies of key words and phrases that were commonly associated with opposing narratives around the conflict.

“This all began with an event that the Kremlin still calls a” coup “and Western governments call” The Revolution of Dignity, “very different stories there,” Professor Driscoll explained.

“The framing language of” terrorism “was prominent in anti-Kremlin users and” fascism “was popular among pro-Kremlin tweets,” he added.

“These two narratives were often used in news coverage during the six months of the study, including in Russian and Western television news programs.”

The data obtained from social networks could also reveal those areas where dispatch forces would have led to greater resistance and the corresponding casualties and costs. In the picture, protesters face outside the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol on February 26, 2014

The data obtained from social networks could also reveal those areas where dispatch forces would have led to greater resistance and the corresponding casualties and costs. In the picture, protesters face outside the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol on February 26, 2014

The data obtained from social networks could also reveal those areas where dispatch forces would have led to greater resistance and the corresponding casualties and costs. In the picture, protesters face outside the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol on February 26, 2014

“If you are a conservative Russian military planner, you only send special forces to places where you are pretty sure they will be perceived as liberators, not as occupants,” said article author and political scientist Jesse Driscoll of UC San Diego.

The team then applied these vocabularies to a database of location-tagged tweets published from Ukraine for 188 days between February and August 2014, excluding tweets produced by automated accounts or ‘bots’.

Attention was paid to publications in Russian, under the assumption that the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine would be the group most open to Kremlin messages and protests against local authorities.

To begin with, the team identified a sample of 5,328 tweets from 1,339 accounts related to the conflict, which were analyzed by a team of Russian speakers in Ukraine and ordered by their political affiliation.

As several anti-government and pro-government militias emerged, Russian special forces entered Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts as of February 27, 2014.

As several anti-government and pro-government militias emerged, Russian special forces entered Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts as of February 27, 2014.

As several anti-government and pro-government militias emerged, Russian special forces entered Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts as of February 27, 2014.

From this, the researchers were able to map the distribution of these anti and pro-Kremlin feelings in each of the individual oblasts of Ukraine.

Although there were expressions on Twitter of pro-Kremlin feelings from each oblast, the researchers found that Crimea was an atypical case, in which there was a high percentage of pro-Russian feelings.

This was the region where the Russian news narrative, which a fascist coup had taken place in Ukraine, really seized the local Russian-speaking communities.

Outside the Crimea and the Far East of the country, this framework resonated much less, which could explain why the Kremlin did not press Ukraine more, where they may have faced stronger and more violent resistance.

Although there were expressions on Twitter of pro-Kremlin feelings coming from each oblast, the researchers discovered that Crimea was an atypical case, in which there was a high percentage of pro-Russian feelings

Although there were expressions on Twitter of pro-Kremlin feelings coming from each oblast, the researchers discovered that Crimea was an atypical case, in which there was a high percentage of pro-Russian feelings

Although there were expressions on Twitter of pro-Kremlin feelings coming from each oblast, the researchers discovered that Crimea was an atypical case, in which there was a high percentage of pro-Russian feelings

‘Our guess is that [Kremlin] the planners would have been eager to get information about the social attitudes of Ukrainians, “said Professor Driscoll.

“If Russian strategists were considering expansion beyond Crimea, they would have been able to use social media information to evaluate, very accurately and in real time, the reception they would probably receive,” the researchers wrote.

“Our data shows that further expansion beyond Crimea could have resulted in an ethnic bloodbath.”

A second analysis, using a larger data set of tweets compiled by a machine learning algorithm trained in the first sample, identified 58,698 pro-Kremlin publications and 107,041 total anti-Kremlin.

In this data set, Crimea was no longer highlighted as an extreme outlier; instead, the maps emphasized the longitudinal dimension of the data, with more pro-Kremlin feelings appearing in the eastern oblasts and anti-Russian tweets in the west.

In a second larger data set, Crimea was no longer highlighted as an extreme outlier; instead, the maps emphasized the longitudinal dimension of the data, with more pro-Kremlin feelings appearing in the eastern oblasts and anti-Russian tweets in the west

In a second larger data set, Crimea was no longer highlighted as an extreme outlier; instead, the maps emphasized the longitudinal dimension of the data, with more pro-Kremlin feelings appearing in the eastern oblasts and anti-Russian tweets in the west

In a second larger data set, Crimea was no longer highlighted as an extreme outlier; instead, the maps emphasized the longitudinal dimension of the data, with more pro-Kremlin feelings appearing in the eastern oblasts and anti-Russian tweets in the west

In a second larger data set, Crimea was no longer highlighted as an extreme outlier; instead, the maps emphasized the longitudinal dimension of the data, with more pro-Kremlin feelings appearing in the eastern oblasts and anti-Russian tweets in the west

In a second larger data set, Crimea was no longer highlighted as an extreme outlier; instead, the maps emphasized the longitudinal dimension of the data, with more pro-Kremlin feelings appearing in the eastern oblasts and anti-Russian tweets in the west

In a second larger data set, Crimea was no longer highlighted as an extreme outlier; instead, the maps emphasized the longitudinal dimension of the data, with more pro-Kremlin feelings appearing in the eastern oblasts and anti-Russian tweets in the west

“Our claim is not that social networks are the only way to get this information,” Driscoll said, noting that the Kremlin has “many eyes on the ground” in Ukraine.

However, at the same time, he added, Twitter “provides a granular image that analysts from different countries can observe in real time, even from a great distance.”

Similar techniques could be used to assess the feelings of other demographic groups, the team notes, with countless military crisis negotiation applications.

For example, this could allow Chinese analysts to require real-time updates on public opinion in Taiwan, or for the United States to control popular feelings among Iranian youth.

“Our claim is not that social networks are the only way to get this information,” Driscoll said, noting that the Kremlin has “many eyes on the ground” in Ukraine. However, at the same time, he added, Twitter “provides a granular image that analysts from different countries can observe in real time, even from a great distance.”

“We favor the analogy between information warfare techniques and airplanes at the beginning of World War I,” the researchers concluded.

“Conventional armies are just beginning to explore the ways in which emerging information technologies can shape the battlefields.”

“As real-time data mining techniques are commercialized, they will be integrated into best practices for counterinsurgency and, more generally, in military planning.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal. Post-Soviet affairs.

Russia and Ukraine: key moments in their relationship

The ties between Russia and Ukraine have been turbulent since the fall of the Soviet Union, but they deteriorated considerably after the pro-EU revolution in Kiev in 2014.

In the midst of a new peak of tensions for a naval confrontation in the Azov Sea, here is a summary of the key moments of their relationship.

Soviet independence limited

In December 1991, Ukraine voted in favor of the independence of the Soviet Union in a referendum.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin accepts the vote and Russia, Ukraine and Belarus established a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

But in the next five years, Ukraine looks for ways to escape Russia’s guardianship.

Upon perceiving the CIS as an attempt to bring it back under Moscow’s control, it turns to the West and seeks ties with the US-led NATO military alliance, a banned option for Russia.

Friendship treaty

In May 1997, Russia and Ukraine sign a friendship treaty that reconciles them but without eliminating a main source of tension: Kiev’s ties with NATO.

It resolves a key disagreement by allowing Russia to retain ownership of most of the ships in the Black Sea fleet based in Crimea, Ukraine, while requiring Moscow to pay Kiev rent to use the port of Sevastopol.

However, Moscow remains Kiev’s most important trading partner, and Ukraine is totally dependent on Russia’s oil and gas.

Pro-West Kiev

Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 are marred by fraud and the victory of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych causes unprecedented protests in the peaceful Orange Revolution.

Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 were marred by fraud and the victory of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych (pictured) provoked unprecedented protests in the peaceful Orange Revolution

Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 were marred by fraud and the victory of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych (pictured) provoked unprecedented protests in the peaceful Orange Revolution

Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004 were marred by fraud and the victory of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych (pictured) provoked unprecedented protests in the peaceful Orange Revolution

The vote is being canceled and in December the pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is appointed president.

In January 2005, Yushchenko made his first trip to Russia in an attempt to reconcile.

The ‘gas wars’

In January 2006, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom suspends vital shipments to Ukraine after months of price disputes. The cut affects subsequent deliveries to European countries affected by a cold wave.

Russia again in January 2009 stops gas deliveries to Ukraine due to non-payment of debts, and also suspends all shipments to Europe through Ukraine for two weeks.

There is another stop of several months in 2014 for the pending payments of Ukraine, which is resolved after the marathon of talks negotiated by the EU.

Pro-European uprising

In November 2013, Yanukovich, president since 2010, suspends talks on a trade and political pact with the European Union in favor of strengthening ties with Russia.

It causes weeks of mass protests by pro-European opposition groups that demand that the pro-Russian ruler resign.

The uprising, centered on the Kiev Independence Square (Maidan), reaches a critical point in February 2014 when police shoot at protesters.

About 90 people die, which brings the number of victims of the three-month uprising to around 100.

Yanukovych flees to Russia and an interim government is installed.

Russia annexes Crimea

Pro-Russian protesters clash in February 2014 with supporters of the new provisional authorities in Simferopol, the capital of the Crimean peninsula.

Russian armed men seize the parliament and government buildings and raise the Russian flag

On March 23, 2014, pro-Russian soldiers with unmarked uniforms are positioned on top of an APC near the base of Ukrainian Marines in the city of Feodosia, Crimea.

On March 23, 2014, pro-Russian soldiers with unmarked uniforms are positioned on top of an APC near the base of Ukrainian Marines in the city of Feodosia, Crimea.

On March 23, 2014, pro-Russian soldiers with unmarked uniforms are positioned on top of an APC near the base of Ukrainian Marines in the city of Feodosia, Crimea.

On March 16, pro-Moscow officials in Crimea held a referendum on separating from Ukraine and joining Russia.

An overwhelming 97 percent of Crimeans vote in favor, although the measure is considered illegal by Kiev and the western capitals.

Two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a treaty that absorbs Crimea in Russia.

Separatist Rebellion

In April 2014, a pro-Russian rebellion erupts in the industrial areas of eastern Ukraine with protesters seizing local government buildings.

Pro-Russian officials in Donetsk and Lugansk declare that their regions are independent.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of instigating the uprising and dumping weapons and troops to reinforce the self-proclaimed republics. The Kremlin denies the claims. Since then, the conflict has left more than 10,000 people dead.

By AFP

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