Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, online discourse by far-right groups in Eastern European regions has altered. Our analysis revealed that pre-conflict, Nazism was one of the defining themes present in online in-group communications. Post-conflict, these defining themes shifted towards nationalism.
The role of the far-right in Ukraine has long been debated. Research on the far-right’s activity in Ukraine rarely focuses on their online presence and activities. As far-right groups and individuals increasingly leverage social media, this is a major oversight. This Insight examines how online communication within far-right groups in Ukraine has changed since the full-scale invasion by analysing the images shared on public, far-right Telegram channels. In collaboration with Tech Against Terrorism (TAT) we analysed a dataset comprised of 2,303 images extracted from the Russian, Ukrainian, and Hungarian-speaking public Telegram channels of Trident Division and Blood and Honour. The images were collected on the encrypted messaging application between March and April 2022.
To analyse the dataset, a content analysis was conducted, and the text contained within images was translated into English where appropriate. Our motivation in carrying out this analysis was to observe any changes in narrative in the dataset from the channel’s creation to the time of data collection. From this analysis, we observed a sudden shift in rhetoric from Nazism to nationalist imagery. This shift was observed in images before and after the last week of February to the first week of April 2022, during the time of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
There is a delicate balance when discussing the role of far-right extremists in Ukraine. The existence of far-right organisations in Ukraine is well-established, despite their minor presence within Ukrainian forces. The presence of such organisations was exploited as justification for the full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation on 24 February 2022.
While far-right extremism in Eastern Europe, just like in the West, rejects liberal values, it has significantly different qualities to the Western far-right. Since Eastern European countries tend to be multi-ethnic, ethnicity can be perceived as more important than nationality, therefore, antisemitism and anti-Roma sentiments are more prevalent. Eastern European far-right rhetoric also pays less attention to immigration issues since they are less relevant due to lower rates of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. While the presence of far-right extremists has been observed on both sides of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, this Insight will only analyse the Ukrainian side due to significant ideological differences between groups.
Ukrainian far-right extremism is unique when compared to some other Eastern European countries since it supports NATO and, to some extent the EU, as a way to reject Russian influence. The Ukrainian far-right has also historically played a significant role in fighting for the country’s independence from the Soviet Union and as such, tends to be interpreted as nationalist. These close links and lack of clear distinctions between far-right and nationalist ideas make research difficult, especially in the context of the increased nationalism observed in both Ukrainian and Russian speakers since the Crimean annexation in 2014. This connection between the far-right and nationalism also presents a future risk due to the possibility of radicalisation through military service during the ongoing war.
While literature specifically related to Ukrainian far-right online activity is not extensive, the general trends are closely related to those observed in North America and the rest of Europe. The presence of online far-right extremist groups has been described as relatively diffuse, with an overlap in membership across groups. Mammone et al. also noted doxing and sharing memes as core activities observed in far-right online groups across regions. Since this project focused on the online activity of self-identifying far-right groups, drawing distinctions between nationalists and the far-right has been largely avoided. With the general trend of Ukraine progressively embracing more liberal values since Euromaidan in 2014, it is possible that individuals holding extremist values have been turning to online groups to confirm their identities. This confirmation tends to take the form of looking for communities of like-minded people, who share similar beliefs on such topics as nationality, politics, and international relations.
Those participating in online far-right extremist organisations have been noted to join such groups due to the offline stigmatisation of their radical opinions by their peers or figures of authority such as parents or teachers. Additionally, persistent historical and socio-economical grievances were also noted as important factors for the appearance of far-right extremist beliefs. In countries which are less tolerant of far-right beliefs due to existing cultural norms such as a broad acceptance of democratic principles and minority rights, the lack of acceptance for such identities oftentimes leads individuals to seek support in online communities. The approach to online discourse adopted by the far-right, including meme sharing, is one of the main qualities which separates it from other extremist collectives. The unique style of communication through multiple mediums (image and text) strengthens recruitment and aids content moderation evasion.
Before the Invasion
Before the full-scale invasion, militarised far-right extremist imagery was prominent mostly in the form of photos of the SS and swastika flags. The group members also shared images of far-right music albums, stickers and graffiti in public places, as well as displaying varying organisational merchandise such as flags and hoodies. Additionally, group members shared numerous chat screenshots which included political, cultural, or historical arguments around Ukrainian or far-right extremist identities. One such argument, which appeared in multiple public channels, was focused on a seemingly pro-Russian person, who used the etymology of ‘Ukraine’ (which literally translates to ‘border region’) to argue about the nation’s lack of cultural significance, thus them identifying as ethnically Russian. Several disagreements in relation to LGBTQ+ issues were also shared, some of which related to minorities serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. These topics suggest that members saw online channels as spaces where their identities could be affirmed. Imagery related to merchandise and chat screenshots remained throughout the whole observed time frame.
After the Invasion
The full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation led to some significant changes in the images shared within the groups. While the focus on militarised content remained, we observed a shift from Nazi German and old Germanic content (such as references to pagan Gods and runic-style writing) to Ukrainian nationalist imagery focusing on the Ukrainian military. Special emphasis was placed on the Azov Regiment, which has been noted to have ties to far-right groups. Notably, many images related to Azov recurred between datasets, suggesting some overlap in group membership.
Around the time of the invasion, groups also shared information published by official Ukrainian state agencies as well as prominent political individuals. The reports shared were mostly concerned with military activity (e.g., which side was controlling specific territories) and victories, such as the number of Russian casualties and damaged equipment. A significant number of images were infographics published by the Ukrainian authorities, information on civilian resistance, and material addressed to Russian soldiers asking for their surrender. This finding suggests that the analysed groups followed the established behaviours of the far-right by displaying general support for the state.
Doxing, more commonly observed in Western far-right organisations, also became prevalent, especially among Russian soldiers and individuals assumed to support the actions of the Russian Federation. After one individual was suspected of providing information to Russian forces regarding attacks on Kyiv ‘Retroville’ shopping centre, their name, date of birth, and address were shared across groups. Photos of captured Russian soldiers also became prominent after the escalation of the conflict.
While the prominence and impact of Ukrainian far-right groups have been often overstated, the findings offered here support three key recommendations for relevant stakeholders to consider.
- Stakeholders should focus on analysing changes in online communications observed in extremist groups in the wake of global conflict, for the purpose of understanding what new content should be countered.
- More research should also be produced in cases where no observed changes take place to establish an understanding of what characteristics do not facilitate changes in far-right discourse online. This work can help to develop a deeper understanding of far-right activity to build counter-policy around.
- Relevant stakeholders should consider the policy implications of variability in extremist discourse and rhetoric surrounding discourse-altering global events.
Moving forward, future research should continue to analyse the themes such narratives present in right-wing images. Such research should consider a wider dataset including more groups to further cement findings.
Deina Venckunaite is an Undergraduate student at Swansea University, studying Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Connor Rees is a PhD at Swansea University, studying the relationship between the extreme right and hybrid-human automated extremist content removal. Twitter: @Connor_Rees67
Lella Nouri is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Co-Director of the Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC) at Swansea University. She specialises in extremism, terrorist use of the internet and hate crime. Twitter: @CTProject_Lella