It’s said that truth is the first casualty in war, and so too is memory. Truth and memory have never been as fragile as they have become during the digital age.
When Putin invaded Ukraine he and his government made many mistakes, including some world-changing miscalculations. His bungling generals made a host of errors, some of which were based on false assumptions about Ukraine’s response and the West’s reactions.
Yet, in one key domain of warfare, Russian actions were far more successful, at least in the short term. Russia’s disinformation tactics and strategies achieved numerous desired impacts. Preparations for an outright assault on the info-environment were a long time in the making, with investments dating back many years. One need only look to the US government’s revelations about Kremlin meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections.
Now there are new tools to help researchers, activists, and others understand the rapid-fire disinformation flows emanating from Russian and/or Russian-aligned sources.
The most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, begun on Feb. 24, 2022, prompted the non-profit Internet Archive (www.archive.org) to ask a simple question: “What role for the library and the archive during wartime?” In response, the team running the San Francisco-based Archive has initiated and supported several high-impact projects to preserve and make accessible diverse news, social and other media related to this war.
For more than 25 years, the Archive has been preserving digital information, with a sharp focus on making it accessible. It has also been digitizing analog material, preserving it, and making those resources accessible. The Archive works with a range of media and sources, including books, academic journals, radio, TV, software, microfiche, microfilm, even 78s, CD and LPs. All told, billions of items have been captured, taking up nearly 100 petabytes of storage – safely stored in at least two physical locations and available to researchers, journalists, students, policy makers, activists and the general public. Moreover, it is all without charge or the kinds of advertising driven surveillance common to commercial services.
The Archive has become the world’s premier public digital memory institution. According to Mark Graham, who directs the Wayback Machine (a sort of “time machine” for the web): “Archive leaders are driven, day after day, by one question: how to be of maximum service as a library. Since March of 2022 the Archive has been at the center of more than a dozen discrete projects. Each is leveraging their existing capabilities and, at the same time, developing new ones – as the needs have been identified.”
TV, especially state-run TV in authoritarian states (e.g., Iran, Russia, North Korea and China) is a key medium from which populations develop understandings of what is “true” and important. It helps define their core beliefs and culture. It underpins popular support for actions of those countries’ leaders, including the most consequential of actions like decisions to go to war.
For the most part that TV is not easily available to the West. Because of the inherently ephemeral nature of the medium, and the fact much of it is in non-English languages, it is not easily searchable or referenceable.
Graham says that “one core goal of the Russian TV Archiving project is to help make Russian TV less opaque to the West: To help Western researchers, journalists, policy makers and the general populations better understand what Russians are learning and thinking.”
For some years the Archive’s larger TV News project helps to make what is communicated on TV, world-wide, more accessible. Its video archiving project makes video material more easily accessible, searchable, citable, and useful. This can include video from conferences and various government and other civic gatherings.
Consider one example: For 12 years the independent TV channel TV Rain broadcast from Moscow. In March 2022 it was shut down and the only archive was in Russia. Archive staff worked to transfer the archive to San Francisco and are now in the process of making it available via the Internet Archive. More than 59,000 TV Rain shows can now be viewed via the TV News Archive and hundreds of archived shows are being added every day. The programming is Russian and lacks closed captions.
Graham provides a peek into the not-so-distant future: “In the coming months the Archive will be using Automatic Speech Recognition and related technologies to transcribe the audio to text, translate that text to English and other languages and index it to support full text search.”
Since March of 2022, the Archive’s staff have archived, and made accessible, nearly all broadcasts from four Russian networks (Russia-1, Russia-24, Channel One Russia and NTV), one Ukrainian (Espresso) and one Belarusian Channel.
In collaboration with the “Saving Russian Independent Media” project (sponsored by BARD College and PEN.org) the Archive has been archiving key Russian media websites. Those web archives are updated on a continuous basis and available via the Wayback and also via Full text search here.
Telegram is one of the most popular social apps in Ukraine and Russia. People use it to share private messages as well as public messages. Starting on April 23 the staff began working with Archive Team to archive selected Telegram groups at scale, more than 1 billion Telegram posts, from more than 100,000 public Telegram Channels archived so far.
VK.com is a major social media platform based in St. Petersburg and mostly used by Russian speakers. The staff have been archiving selected posts from about 3,000 regional public groups. These groups have been manually picked by volunteers and cover all Russian regions as well as Crimea, for example:
The Archive has worked to capture all posts in selected official VK pages since February 20, 2022. They only capture posts with certain keywords in all other groups. These keywords are related to war, economy, education and other topics that may be interesting to future historians.
They are especially interested in pages related to occupied Ukrainian territories as well as popular Russian groups which they may have missed.
Helping with the war effort
Graham reflects to the time when, “shortly after the war started, more than a thousand volunteers came together to help identify and archive Ukrainian web resources of significance from a cultural perspective.”
The Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO.org) project has archived material to archive.org and the Wayback Machine. Archive staff are now in the process of building an archive.org Collection of WACZ (web archive) files created by the project.
Using the Internet Archive’s Archive-It service, since April 14, 2022 the Archive has been archiving 947 Russian News sites and 316 Ukrainian News sites twice-daily.
The Archive’s Archive-It services have provided archiving capabilities and support to a variety of institutions and collaborative projects documenting the conflict: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI), the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, Oxford New College, SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online), and La contemporaine.
Claims made in Wikipedia articles are qualified by citations from noted sources. The Turn All References Blue (TARB) project, of the Internet Archive, works to add links to those citations. To date, the Archive has added nearly a million links to digital versions of books, available from archive.org, that are cited in more than 50 Wikipedia language editions.
To help accelerate that effort, for the Ukrainian Wikipedia site, the Archive added 17,000 book links and identified 25,000 cited books that need links. To help acquire those books they collaborated with the online book store Better World Book (owned by a sister non-profit of the Internet Archive). Their plan is to continue focusing on improving the quality and quantity of linked citations in the Ukrainian Wikipedia language edition.
Many libraries, and other cultural centers, in Ukraine have been damaged and access to books and related educational resources has been significantly disrupted. To help address this need, especially for material in the Ukrainian language, the Archive recently launched a Ukrainian book drive. The Archive is actively prioritizing the acquisition, digitization and availability of these books, and are exploring other ways to help support the Ukrainian library community.
Lessons from the past
During the first Cold War, a slow and steady approach to the collection of disinformation worked well. But in 2023, and in the Russian war on Ukraine, the strategies that have helped RFR/RL succeed over decades, for instance, will not serve the West’s aims as it pushes back against Kremlin propaganda. In the new world – where memes and trolls move the news – the speed and savvy which characterize The Internet Archive is not a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have.
This moment requires an approach which captures and stores for later analysis as much as possible of Russia’s cacophony of different voices: dissenters, genuine journalists, average citizens, propagandists, fellow-travelers, useful idiots, government employees. A whole spectrum approach is needed, and that is clearly what The Internet Archive is working to deliver.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.