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Russian Disinformation on Students Filters Through to Indian Media

Russian Disinformation on Students Filters Through to Indian Media

This article was corrected to reflect the fact that the refusal of Indian and other students of color at the Ukrainian border was explicitly racist. It also added further context to the scatter graph of Twitter users.

Indian news broadcasters, platforms, and right-wing influencers amplified the Kremlin narrative that Indian students were held hostage by Ukrainian armed forces, a Logically investigation has found. The claims helped feed an already prevalent anti-Ukraine, pro-Russia sentiment. 

India and Russia have historically been strategic partners and allies with significant trade balances between the two nations. Since the Russian invasion on February 24, the Kremlin has been creating disinformation narratives focusing on India to artificially inflate the region's support for the invasion. Despite India's neutral stance in the ongoing conflict, some Indian media outlets have allowed themselves to be drawn into the information war around the conflict, spreading Russian-backed false narratives, which have then gone on to be channeled across mainstream media and regional media. 

Despite India's neutral stance in the ongoing conflict, some Indian media outlets have allowed themselves to be drawn into the information war around the conflict, spreading Russian-backed false narratives, which have then gone on to be channeled across mainstream media and regional media. 

We looked at how these efforts have been successful in both Indian media and among right-wing Indian groups online. 

The start of the state-affiliated media narrative 

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian state media outlets have often cited the plight of Indian students stranded in Ukraine to garner Indian support for Putin’s actions, which have been largely condemned in the West.

Indian students make up the largest contingent of Ukraine's roughly 76,000 international students, numbering around 18,000. Since the invasion, large numbers of Indian students were reportedly stranded, unable to access flights home, money, or in some cases basic necessities such as food or water. Details of Indian students facing racism at the Ukraine border were widely reported

On March 2, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters that a large group of students from India was being forcibly held in Kharkiv by Ukrainian authorities.

Logically investigators ran a keyword search for this claim on the Russian search engine Yandex and discovered it had been widely boosted across several state-backed media outlets.

A screenshot of Russian coverage from Regnum, a national news service within the country. The article banner image uses an old Indo-Soviet poster from 1956 that says "India and Russians are brothers!" alluding to the long history of strategic partnership between the two countries. 

A screenshot of Russian coverage from Regnum, a national news service within the country. The article banner image uses an old Indo-Soviet poster from 1956 that says "India and Russians are brothers!" alluding to the long history of strategic partnership between the two countries. 

According to web analytics service Similarweb data, the national news service Regnum received 16.8 million total visits last month. According to a 2021 report by Propastop — a site tackling propaganda and misinformation run by Estonian volunteer — its co-founder and current editor-in-chief is prominent pro-government ideologue Modest Kolerov.

A screenshot of an article from Russian state-owned news agency TASS, reporting on Putin's alleged talks with Modi over Indian students in Ukraine. Headline reads: "Putin told Modi that the Ukrainian security forces are using Indian students as human shields."

A screenshot of an article from Russian state-owned news agency TASS, reporting on Putin's alleged talks with Modi over Indian students in Ukraine. Headline reads: "Putin told Modi that the Ukrainian security forces are using Indian students as human shields."

Similarly, another major Russian state-owned news agency, TASS, reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Ukrainian security forces had used Indian students as human shields. In response, Konashenkov assured the Indian government's press arm that Russian armed forces were "ready to take all the necessary measures for the safe evacuation of Indian citizens and send them home from Russian territory." Similarweb reported that tass.ru received 76.8 million total visits last month. Significantly, TASS is not only the largest news agency in Russia but one of the largest news agencies in the world. Among countries that do not view Russia as an adversary, it is considered a credible outlet.

A screenshot of an article from Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, reporting on Putin's alleged talks with Modi over Indian students in Ukraine. The headline reads “Defense Ministry: Kharkiv authorities are holding a group of Indian students.”

A screenshot of an article from Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, reporting on Putin's alleged talks with Modi over Indian students in Ukraine. The headline reads “Defense Ministry: Kharkiv authorities are holding a group of Indian students.”

Russian state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, relayed a similar falsehood but took a different approach, stating that Ukrainian authorities are holding a group of Indian students in Kharkiv. The article claims that students want to evacuate through the Belgorod region of Russia, fueling the Kremlin narrative about Russia being safer than Ukraine. Similarweb reported that ria.ru received 262.3m total visits last month, making it a significant contributor to pro-Kremlin disinformation. 

The Russian Embassy in India

"These students are actually taken hostage by the Ukrainian security forces, who use them as a human shield & in every possible way prevent them from leaving for Russia. Responsibility, in this case, lies entirely w/ the Kyiv authorities," the Russian Embassy's official account tweeted on March 3, serving as another key disseminator of the Indian student falsehood. The tweet had a reach of 70,845 users and an engagement of 1,412 users. 

This is not the first time the Russian Embassy's Twitter account attempted to influence media coverage in India. On February 28, four days after the invasion, the account tweeted, "With regard to the crisis in Ukraine, the Indian media is requested to be accurate so that the Indian public receives objective information." This particular tweet managed to reach 70,744 users and an even larger engagement of 17,419 users.

The use of verified diplomatic accounts on popular social media platforms to amplify mis- and disinformation, as well as hostile narratives targeting Ukraine and its EU allies, is a well-documented strategy pursued by the Kremlin to imbue these false narratives with a veneer of credibility. Logically has documented how verified diplomatic accounts have been used to further instances of Russian disinformation as originally spread by the Russian Embassy in India's Twitter account, including conspiracy theories concerning U.S. assistance to Ukrainian biological labs.  

A tweet from the verified account of the Russian Embassy in India amplifies the false narrative that Ukrainian national battalions prevented civilians from exiting the zone of conflict. Text reads: "Russia is taking all possible measures to evacuate civilians & foreign citizens from the blocked settlements of Ukraine. Corridors were opened daily in the Volnovakha & Mariupol directions, but the national battalions prevented civilians to exit."

A tweet from the verified account of the Russian Embassy in India amplifies the false narrative that Ukrainian national battalions prevented civilians from exiting the zone of conflict. Text reads: "Russia is taking all possible measures to evacuate civilians & foreign citizens from the blocked settlements of Ukraine. Corridors were opened daily in the Volnovakha & Mariupol directions, but the national battalions prevented civilians to exit."

A tweet from the verified account of the Russian Embassy in India amplifies the falsehood about biological laboratories in Ukraine.  The text reads: "#Zakharova: We remember how they were searching for chemical, biological or bacteriological weapons across the globe, invading countries & killing people. Well, you have been searching in all the wrong places. We have found them for you…in #Ukraine ➡️"

A tweet from the verified account of the Russian Embassy in India amplifies the falsehood about biological laboratories in Ukraine.  The text reads: "#Zakharova: We remember how they were searching for chemical, biological or bacteriological weapons across the globe, invading countries & killing people. Well, you have been searching in all the wrong places. We have found them for you…in #Ukraine ➡️"

Indian media outlets

The Russian Embassy's tweet claiming Indian students were being used as "human shields" was quickly picked up by prominent Indian news media outlets such as NDTV, Business Standard, and OpIndia. The tweet along with Konashenkov's statement served as two official sources for the articles.

NDTV article with the headline "Indian Students Kept As Hostages By Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Says Russia." The introduction reads: The Indian government had issued an urgent all-caps appeal to its citizens to immediately leave Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv.

NDTV article with the headline "Indian Students Kept As Hostages By Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Says Russia." The introduction reads: The Indian government had issued an urgent all-caps appeal to its citizens to immediately leave Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv.

A Business Standard headline reads: "Indian students taken hostage by Ukrainian security forces, claims Russia." The introduction says: "This comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and reviewed the situation in Ukraine, especially in Kharkiv." 

A Business Standard headline reads: "Indian students taken hostage by Ukrainian security forces, claims Russia." The introduction says: "This comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and reviewed the situation in Ukraine, especially in Kharkiv."

An OpIndia headline reads: "Ukraine holding Indian students hostage in Kharkiv to use them as human shield, Russian President Putin informs PM Modi." The introduction reads: "The conversation between PM Modi and President Putin took place some hours after Indians stranded in east Ukrainian city of Kharkiv were asked to leave the city by any means possible."

An OpIndia headline reads: "Ukraine holding Indian students hostage in Kharkiv to use them as human shield, Russian President Putin informs PM Modi." The introduction reads: "The conversation between PM Modi and President Putin took place some hours after Indians stranded in east Ukrainian city of Kharkiv were asked to leave the city by any means possible."

YouTube 

Apart from traditional print media outlets, the false claim about Indian students being kept as hostages has been amplified by news channels and promoted through the YouTube accounts of news channels.

A video titled "Big Claim By Russia, Indian Students Kept as 'Hostages' By Ukrainians, Assures Safe Passage," uploaded by India Today had nearly 22,000 views. India Today's YouTube channel has approximately 5.9 million subscribers.

Screenshot of YouTube video titled "Big Claim By Russia, Indian Students Kept As 'Hostages' By Ukrainians, Assures Safe Passage."

Screenshot of YouTube video titled "Big Claim By Russia, Indian Students Kept As 'Hostages' By Ukrainians, Assures Safe Passage."

Another video, "Ukraine Using Indian Students as Human Shields," uploaded by a YouTube channel called "wifistudy 2.0," which prepares students for national competitive exams, accumulated 626,360 views. Its  YouTube channel has approximately 4.54 million subscribers.

Screenshot of YouTube video titled "Ukraine Using Indian Students as Human Shield | Analysis by Ankit Avasthi"

Screenshot of YouTube video titled "Ukraine Using Indian Students as Human Shield | Analysis by Ankit Avasthi"

Regional news outlets also reported on the claim. Odisha TV's video on the false story received 217,361 views — its YouTube channel has approximately 7.5 million subscribers overall.

Screenshot of YouTube video titled "Ukraine Kept Indian Students As Hostages In Kharkiv, Says Russia."

Screenshot of YouTube video titled "Ukraine Kept Indian Students As Hostages In Kharkiv, Says Russia."

Russia's allegations were refuted by India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) when its spokesperson Arindam Bagchi answered queries regarding such reports. 

"We have not received any reports of any hostage situation regarding any student. We have requested support from the Ukrainian authorities in arranging special trains for taking out students from Kharkiv and neighboring areas to the western part of the country," the Ministry stated

This statement helped undermine the narrative almost instantly. The majority of media outlets documented in this investigation published the Ministry's statement shortly after, clarifying that Ukrainians did not take Indian students hostage or use them as human shields.

Other steps to curb the spread of Russian disinformation in India have been taken since the outbreak of the conflict, primarily involving YouTube. On April 2, the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (Ministry of I&B) blocked 33 YouTube channels for spreading falsehoods concerning India's national security, foreign relations, and public order. 18 such Indian YouTube news channels were blocked for the first time under the new IT Rules of 2021. Four Pakistan-based YouTube news channels were also blocked. Weeks later, on April 25, the Ministry blocked 16 YouTube news channels, out of which 10 were from India and six were from Pakistan. In the statement, the Ministry of I&B said: "It was observed that a significant amount of false content published by these Indian YouTube based channels related to the ongoing situation in Ukraine, and aimed at jeopardizing India's foreign relations with other countries."

Twitter

In addition to the promotion of the Russian narrative by media outlets, Twitter users from various communities also assisted in spreading the false story. Using the Twitter scraping tool Twint, Logically discovered that a large majority of accounts that received significant likes have a history of promoting right-wing narratives. We looked for the accounts that had the highest likes to retweet ratio and searched for the key phrase "Indian students hostage." We have highlighted the top 25 accounts in a scatter plot below. 

A scatter plot created with Datawrapper showing the retweets count to likes count ratio of the tip 25 accounts when searching for the key phrase "indian students hostage"

Accounts such as @ajihaan, @rose_k01, @iyervval, @AlexeiArora, @aabhas24, @opindia_com, and @bishvendrasingh have a history of disseminating right-wing narratives on social media. Others listed in the chart, including @ANI, @navikakumar, @sidhant, @wionews, @arunpudur, @bhaabnaarora, @itsshubhangi, @timesofindia, @adityarajkaul, @abhishekjha157, and @abhijitmajumder, are the accounts of journalists and media organizations. @Meaindia is the account of the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, India.

The scatter plot moves from red to blue, with the right side denoting the accounts with the most likes to retweets ratio concerning the "Indian students hostage" where mentions were also explicitly made about the “human shield’ narrative. Particularly significant is the presence of @MEAindia, the account of the official spokesperson of India's Ministry of External Affairs where they debunk such a rhetoric stating that they have not received any such information.

Other accounts such as Navika Kumar, the group editor for Times Now, and OpIndia, having all amplified the false Kremlin claim verbatim. The scatter plot moves from red to blue, with the right side denoting the accounts with the most likes to retweets ratio concerning the "Indian students hostage" narrative. Logically reached out to OpIndia, NDTV, Times Now, and the India Today to ask for a comment on their role. At the time of publication, we have not received a reply.

While the individual motivation for these influencers to promote Russian disinformation remains unclear, the high influx of right-wing narratives supporting pro-Russian rhetoric seems to have emanated from the events surrounding the evacuation of the Indian citizens amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Details of Indian students allegedly facing racism at the border of Ukraine were reported widely.

Tweet from @NavikaKumar reads "Russian information on Indian students being held hostage by Ukraine could end any sympathy that the war torn country had. And if videos of Ukraine army preventing students from boarding trains are true then Ukraine could have a lot to pay for. #ReleaseIndiansNow."

Tweet from @NavikaKumar reads "Russian information on Indian students being held hostage by Ukraine could end any sympathy that the war torn country had. And if videos of Ukraine army preventing students from boarding trains are true then Ukraine could have a lot to pay for. #ReleaseIndiansNow."

Tweet from @Rose_k01 read "After the Way #Ukraine has SHAMELESSLY taken Indian Students as Hostage to use them as "Human Shields", there is No sympathy for Ukraine. I Stand With Putin  #IStandWithPutin." Screenshot of an article about Putin's "telephone conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi."

Tweet from @Rose_k01 read "After the Way #Ukraine has SHAMELESSLY taken Indian Students as Hostage to use them as "Human Shields", there is No sympathy for Ukraine. I Stand With Putin  #IStandWithPutin." Screenshot of an article about Putin's "telephone conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi."

Tweet from @AjiHaaan reads "Racist behaviour by Ukrainians against Indian students is not going to go well for their country. It seems that it is Ukraine which wants to have Indian hostages to use them as humanshield against Russians."

Tweet from @AjiHaaan reads "Racist behaviour by Ukrainians against Indian students is not going to go well for their country. It seems that it is Ukraine which wants to have Indian hostages to use them as humanshield against Russians."

OpIndia tweet reads "Ukraine holding Indian students hostage in Kharkiv to use them as human shields, Russian President Putin informs PM Modi."

OpIndia tweet reads "Ukraine holding Indian students hostage in Kharkiv to use them as human shields, Russian President Putin informs PM Modi."

Conclusion

We usually think of Russian disinformation in the context of how it occurs in the West, but narratives can also play a significant role in shaping public opinion in nations Russia considers to be natural allies. This particular finding is concerning, considering India has remained neutral throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

We usually think of Russian disinformation in the context of how it occurs in the West, but narratives can also play a significant role in shaping public opinion in nations Russia considers to be natural allies.

Targeted misinformation – combined with Indian media's reportage based solely on Russian sources – has highlighted the glaring loopholes in how information is disseminated in light of ongoing conflict. 

When traditional media ends up amplifying state-backed influence operations, such falsehoods spread across different communities. In this case, local influencers picked up this false claim, proliferating it in spheres where mainstream media doesn't have a strong influence. 

On 9 May 2022, Russia took out large-scale advertisements in major Indian publications, including the Indian Express, Financial Express, and the Pioneer, demonstrating the continued importance of monitoring Russian influence in supposed neutral countries such as India.

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