Marketers subvert fake news ad tactics to feed Russia real news reports

If fake news helped erode western democracy, could factual, independent journalism be the final nail in the coffin of the Vladimir Putin regime? It’s a theory being tested by digital advertising expert Rob Blackie, who is raising the funds to inform Russians of the horrors in Ukraine and the budding protests at home.

Blackie has long worked in the online advertising sector, with six years as director of research for UK party the Liberal Democrats. He also clocked a few years at Blue State Digital, an agency credited with the Obama presidential campaign. Now he is urging adland to use its skills to break through the Russian firewall and provide the country’s citizens with the information its government won’t allow them to read.

As per Human Rights Watch this week, censorship is reaching new heights in the warring nation. It has “threatened to fine or block 10 Russian independent media outlets if they do not delete publications about the war in Ukraine.” They are even forbidden from calling the war a ‘war’; instead, it is a “special operation in connection with the situation in Lugansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic.” That’s the two supposedly independent nations that popped up as Putin’s troop border build-up numbered above 100,000.

On his fundraiser, which has hit a few thousand pounds in a few hours since launch and aims for £100,000, he wrote: “The Russian people deserve better. Yet they struggle to get unbiased news. But it’s very hard for Putin to shut down online advertising. So we’re going to use digital ads to show Russians independent news about Ukraine.”

Blackie plans to use modern digital advertising techniques to “show real news about what is happening in Ukraine, from high-quality sources.” In the information-rich west, networks of fake news publishers funded by opaque ad pools are driven by hate clicks. Funded by the marketing dollars of top brands, they’ve seen success in driving division and separating millions from observable reality. It’s one such tactic the likes of the Russian state employs to destabilize hostile nations, although their effectiveness and the stake of their involvement can be argued. But now, speaking to The Drum, Blackie believes these tactics can be employed to get vital, and real, news to the information-starved Russians – likely with the same inflammatory impact on its government.

Blackie claims to have built a team of digital campaign experts who can get around the Russian information restrictions on the free press and advertising. He’s keeping his global team anonymous for now, and is coy on how the team is already spreading the restricted news stories. Furthermore, he claims the team started deploying the ads on Saturday 26 February, and is confident they will be able to continue no matter what keywords, platforms and avenues the Russians restrict.

Blackie started testing the campaign in 2014 when Russia first annexed Crimea in Ukraine’s south. “I didn’t have a chance to see that through properly, but I’d been talking to people for some time, and with recent developments I’d been prompted to do it faster.”

He believes that one of the only reasons Russia can sustain the war is that it is propped up on “blatant lies” from the regime. “On one level, the Russian population knows that it is rubbish, but there is a gap between knowing something is rubbish and knowing the truth.”

He adds: “We want people to make up their own minds – independent media hasn’t been completely wiped out in Russia, we’ll link to them and some overseas but in the Russian language.”

The campaign launched as hackers associating themselves with the Anonymous collective claimed to have hacked Russian state TV. It is difficult to determine the scale of such attacks, but they show cracks in Russia’s defensive infrastructure at a time when it is arresting thousands of its own citizens who are protesting against the war.

So far the campaign’s had 24,000 impressions and 3,000 clicks. It’s a mere first step for the ambitious infowar. From these clicks, Blackie believes shares of the articles or dissemination of the information among the populace will be difficult to track. He’s certain it will have an impact – or at the very least pre-occupy the Roskomnadzor.

“We anticipate they will become a problem because they are very scared of the information. It could be blocked by the Chinese government with a million people [in its] staff, but the Russian state is extremely incompetent and corrupt. And therefore I think they’re going to find it hard to stop this.”

So between the digital advertising specialists and Russian-speaking operatives (Blackie studied the language at GCSE and is not confident he can dust it off effectively), this collective is hoping to wage some information warfare at a cost of around 1,000 people for every £10 spent. And he promises to publish receipts in the aftermath too.

Although Blackie has a “pretty strong point of view” on politics and the war in general, the goal of the campaign is to afford Russians access to news sources and perspectives on the war they may not have otherwise seen. “If they like it, they can share that with their friends and family. It is very, very hard to stop people sharing, and a lot of it will be in encrypted apps.”

Stories vary from the cost of war in Ukraine (Russia isn’t publicizing the steep human cost of the war), to vox pops of real Russian anti-war dissenters, who may be in their millions.

But to bring the operation to an effective scale, Blackie urges: “We need money [and] we need expertise too. The Russian government will try to stop us, we’ll need a lot of people working in parallel trying different approaches to get through.”

Blackie’s happy for adland to pitch in, and wonders whether a news publisher could run an incisive marketing drive with real-world purpose this way...

You can check out the Crowdfunder campaign here.