Facing mounting losses in Ukraine, Russian mercenaries have been using the American social media companies to enlist fresh blood.
Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group has been using Twitter and Facebook to recruit medics, drone operators and even psychologists to aid fighting operations, including in Ukraine, according to exclusive research seen by POLITICO.
Job ads for Wagner, which has mercenaries operating in several countries, have reached nearly 120,000 views on the two social media platforms over the last ten months, according to Logically, a U.K. disinformation-focused research group.
Sixty posts in dozens of languages – including French, Vietnamese and Spanish – shared information about fighting, IT, driving and medical positions apparently available with Wagner. They also included contact phone numbers, Telegram accounts and touted monthly salaries of 240,000 rubles (€2,800) with benefits including health care.
While the researchers couldn’t directly attribute the messages to Wagner with total certainty, the posts carry the footprint of the militia and its supporters.
“We only know that this is using the exact same language as previously verified Wagner accounts on places like Telegram or VK,” said Kyle Walter, head of research for Logically. VK is a popular Russian social media.
It isn’t clear what success the recruitment campaigns have had. Yet the incitement to violence – and promotion of Russian attacks against Ukraine — almost certainly represent breaches of Facebook and Twitter’s separate terms of service that outlaw such material.
Separate analysis from a Western government official, shared with POLITICO, confirmed that at least two phone numbers included in these social media posts linked directly either to the Wagner Group or to Russia’s intelligence service.
“Some of these efforts are actual propaganda films in combination with phone numbers so that you can directly contact representatives of the Wagner Group,” said Walter. “As we continue to view Wagner as a more and more dangerous threat in the world, the fact that these posts are circulating online is very concerning.”
Twitter responded to a request for comment with an automated poop emoji. The social media company last week quit a European Union charter to fight disinformation. The bloc’s new content law to stamp out illegal content and falsehoods, the Digital Services Act (DSA), is also set to enter into force on August 25. Serious violations of the law could lead to fines of up to 6 percent of a company’s global revenue.
“We designated the Wagner Group as a dangerous organization, meaning it cannot have a presence on our platforms,” said a Meta spokesperson. They added that the company also removes content containing “praise or substantive support for Wagner when we become aware of it, including posts that aim to recruit for them.”
Wagner is active in conflicts in Mali and Central Africa but has been particularly high-profile fighting for Russia since it invaded Ukraine last year. The militia recently led much of the heavy fighting in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian town which has seen brutal attritional battles for territory.
One post in French boasted that Wagner employees get “paid time off, healthcare, well-paying jobs and the opportunity to work all over the world.” A salary of 240,000 rubles and a “good bonus for results” was advertised.
“Join us now to defend Russia’s honour and a multipolar world!” read another post in French on Facebook. A third Facebook post in French promoted “life insurance” and working for “a team focused on efficiency and winning.”
“Yevgeny Prigozhin directly from Bakhmut, invites volunteers from 22 to 55 years old to work at PMC Wagner!” read part of a tweet in Indonesian.
The Wagner Group and several of its leaders have been targeted by U.S. and EU sanctions, with some countries taking further steps to curb its activities. The U.S. in January labelled the group as a transnational criminal organization responsible for widespread human rights abuses. French lawmakers voted in May to designate Wagner as a terrorist entity.
“They identify tactics that work and I think once they saw that they could get away with posting certain content on these platforms, people just continued to post more,” said Walter.
Mark Scott contributed reporting.
Feature Image Credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images