Europe’s Cyber “Elves” Are Helping Their Comrades in Ukraine

March 15, 2022
Adéla Klečková
5 min read
Photo credit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock.com
Cyber “elves” from all over Europe are supporting their comrades in Ukraine by fighting the Russian narrative about the war.

They are groups of anonymous cyber activists established in 2014 to fight against pro-Kremlin trolls and Russian disinformation and cyber operations. Over time, the movement expanded to 13 European countries, developing a functional international network of volunteers, which has proven to be especially useful during times of crisis—such as the war in Ukraine.

In the Czech Republic, the cyber elves are monitoring the main narratives surrounding the conflict in Ukraine in the Central European information space. By speedily debunking these narratives and alerting the Czech public, they are preventing disinformation from taking root and becoming part of the mainstream discourse. The Baltic elves are taking the wind out of the sails of Russian disinformation campaigns by receiving information from trusted sources in the front line of the conflict and speedily announcing the true course of the events through their social media and local press.  

Support From the Czech Elves

Without the help of the Czech elves, there would be very little known about the most potent narratives that the Kremlin is employing to undermine the support for Ukraine in Central Europe. To prevent that, they have published a special report succinctly identifying and describing these narratives to inform and alert the political, academic, and media elites as well as the broader public. 

Like their Baltic colleagues, the Czech elves believe that time of the essence and that, by publicly debunking these narratives, they can effectively prevent their intrusion into the Czech public discussion. 

Without the help of the Czech elves, there would be very little known about the most potent narratives that the Kremlin is employing to undermine the support for Ukraine in Central Europe.

The objectives of information operations targeted at Central European audiences are threefold. First, to weaken the support for Ukraine in the war and to turn the public away from Ukraine. Second, to undermine pro-Western orientation and to push people away from NATO and the EU. Third, to seed distrust in national authorities, institutions, and mainstream media. As the elves write in the report: 

The first goal is tactical, resulting from the current situation, the other two are strategic and long-term, corresponding to the basic intention to weaken or fragment the two biggest obstacles to the spread of Russia’s foreign influence are NATO and the EU.

At the end of the last year, a dozen Czech men who went to fight to Donbas for the separatist forces and then returned to their country were sentenced to prison terms for state terrorism. The length of the punishment was unprecedented for this crime—the highest sentence was 21 years. The Czech elves played a role in the trial, having gathered data proving the involvement of these men with the separatist forces and offering it to the state prosecution.

The Czech elves believe that such punishments will be a deterrent strong enough to discourage many of those who originally wanted to follow the example of the Czech militias and wanted to fight for the separatists in Donbas.

Support From the Baltic Elves

The main help the Baltic elves are currently providing to the Ukrainian ones is amplifying true information about the conflict. The cooperation looks as follows: the Ukrainian elves share the most updated data, information, or photos from the front line with the Baltic elves. The latter then use all media channels available to publish the information as soon as possible. Concretely speaking, the elves publish the verified information on their social media—primarily Facebook, which is the most popular social media platform in the Baltic states—and simultaneously forwarding it to trusted local media. 

For example, the elves received a message that Russian troops were shooting at a kindergarten. The objective of Russian disinformation was then to convince the audience it was Ukrainians who were shooting. Luckily, thanks to the immediate reaction of the Baltic elves, the true account of the event was reported within hours, effectively preventing the disinformation from spreading. 

As the Baltic elves do not fail to emphasize, the speed of disseminating information during a “hot” war that is combined with information warfare in its rawest, most intense form is essential because it is the most efficient way to prevent the spread of false narratives before they can properly take root. This kind of support is, in the Baltic elves’ view, the best way they can aid their Ukrainian colleagues.

According to the Baltic elves, the primary objective of Russia’s information operations is to depict Ukraine as an aggressor in the war: the message is that, if Russia had not invaded Ukraine first, the “Nazi regime” under President Volodymyr Zelensky was making plans to attack Russia. Currently, the predominant narrative is that the Ukrainians are making a dirty bomb using a nuclear reactor in Kharkiv or that the Ukrainian regime is shooting people in the humanitarian corridors while Russian soldiers are protecting civilians.

An earlier version of this article was published by Visegrad Insight on February 28, 2022, under the headline “Cyber Elves Helping Their Comrades in Ukraine.”

Adéla Klečková was ReThink.CEE Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in 2020-2021.

The Role of Cyber “Elves” Against Russian Information Operations

Russian information operations against the Western democracies will grow in number, scale, and sophistication in the coming years. This is partially caused by the worsening state of relations between the West and Russia, partially by the global trend of the gradual shift of social and public life from the analog to the digital world.