With a new electronic tool, Westerners used text messages to Russians about the war in Ukraine

People around the world are using a new website to circumvent the Kremlin’s propaganda machine by sending individual messages about the war in Ukraine to random people in Russia.

The site was developed by a group of Polish programmers who acquired about 20 million mobile phone numbers and approximately 140 million email addresses owned by Russian individuals and companies. The site randomly generates numbers and addresses from these databases and allows anyone anywhere in the world to send messages to them, with the option of using a pre-formatted message in Russian calling for people to bypass President Vladimir Putin’s censorship of the media.

Since its launch on March 6, thousands of people around the world, including many in the United States, have used the site to send millions of Russian-language messages, war footage, or images of Western media coverage documenting Russia’s attack on civilians, according to Squad303, where the group that wrote the tool names itself.

This initiative is one among a number of efforts, notably by Western media organizations and governments, that are trying to break through the tight controls that Putin’s government has imposed inside Russia on press coverage of the conflict, which Russian media is prohibited from describing as a war. .

1920.in, developed by a group of Polish programmers known as Squad303, allows anyone anywhere in the world to send cellphone messages and email addresses to random Russian individuals and companies.


Photo:

Squad 303

No. 303 Squadron Leader Jan Zumbach, left, with fellow fighter pilot Eugenius Horbachowski, RAF, in 1942. The Squad303 pirate group takes its name from the group of pilots, famous for their contribution to the fight against Nazi Germany.


Photo:

Corbis/Getty Images

Since its forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, the Kremlin has shut down all independent media in Russia or censored their coverage. Access to Western social networks such as Twitter has also been restricted. This week, the authorities threatened to ban Meta platforms company

Facebook and Instagram, and a new law that says anyone who spreads “false news” about Russia’s campaign in Ukraine could face up to 15 years in prison.

“Our goal was to break through Putin’s digital wall of censorship and make sure that the Russian people are not completely cut off from the world and from the reality of what Russia is doing in Ukraine,” a spokesperson for Poland-based Squad303 said.

The speaker, a programmer who asked not to be identified, likened the effort to Cold War-era projects such as the US-funded Radio Free Europe, which broadcasts radio programs in several languages ​​through the Iron Curtain. He said nearly seven million text messages and two million emails have been sent using the site since its inception a week ago.

The group’s name derives from a British air unit made up of Polish pilots best known for their contributions to the battle against Nazi Germany. The website they created, 1920.in, is a reference to the Soviet-Polish war of 1920, in which the number of Polish troops who repelled a Soviet invasion.

The journal reviewed the sites’ code as published by the authors and experimented with several numbers served by the database, which turned out to be in service. It is not possible to check if the entire database consists of existing numbers and email addresses.

Titan Crawford, who sells trucks in Portland, Oregon, is one of thousands of people using the tool to connect with Russians and share what they share on social media.

Crawford, 38, said he sent 2,000 mobile numbers in Russia. He said most people never responded, and others reacted with insults, but 15 people engaged in a conversation.

To prove he was an ordinary American, Crawford said, he sent pictures to a Russian engineer from his Hawaii vacation. The man responded with pictures of his family’s vacation in Estonia on the Baltic Sea. Mr. Crawford then sent pictures of coverage of Ukraine by major US broadcasters such as CNN.

He said his intention was to win the trust of the Russian people with whom he communicates so that they can come to him for uncensored information about what Putin was doing in Ukraine.

“The whole idea is to educate the Russian people about what is going on so that they can rise up and prevent their government from invading countries,” Crawford said.

“Having lived in the United States all my life, I am only now beginning to understand the concept of the lack of freedom of expression. My heart goes out to the Ukrainians, but now I sympathize with the Russians too, because they have been brainwashed.”

Dai Correa, a 33-year-old mother from Panama, said she sent 100 emails to random Russians after witnessing the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine.

“This situation is horrible, I feel very sad, and wish I could do something… I have a seven-month-old baby, and I couldn’t stop crying when I saw so many babies having to flee from the bombs,” said the lady. said Correa, who trained as a civil engineer.

Media coverage of Russian forces invading Ukraine unfolds in Russia differently from the US Using maps and disinformation, many TV shows are shaping public opinion by justifying Moscow’s decision to attack its neighbor. Photomontage: Sharon Shee

Ms. Correa says she received 20 responses. Most were belligerent—one dispatcher, who mistook her for an American citizen, said he would drop a nuclear bomb on America—but others were more reactive. One of the owners of the beauty salon replied that she is Russian, but not a supporter of Mr. Putin.

Receiving such messages may present risks to some residents of Russia. Russian police have been filmed checking people’s mobile phones and reading their communications following a series of anti-war protests in recent days.

A Russian mother of three from the southeastern city of Saratov, who received information about the war in Ukraine from a Dutchman using a Squad303, said it took her pain to find out what was going on. The woman, 36, said she had received pictures of the terrible destruction and civilian casualties.


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Funeral of three Ukrainian soldiers on Friday at the historic Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz / MAPS for The Wall Street Journal

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“It hurts to see this, and it’s so hard to deal with everything that’s going on…I’m so worried,” she wrote in response to a letter from the Wall Street Journal.

A 25-year-old law student from Moscow, who also spoke with a Westerner to say she did not support Mr. Putin’s war on Ukraine, told the Wall Street Journal that she was not interested in speaking out against the war for fear of retribution.

“Should I risk my education, my future?” She said.

“I know Putin kills people in Ukraine, but it’s not my fault, I don’t kill anyone, I don’t support any wars,” she said.

Karlis Gedrovics, Latvia’s advertising manager, says he sent 100 messages to Russians using the Squad303 tool. In this case, the recipient replied, “Unfortunately, I am fully aware of the situation and feel very sorry for the Ukrainians. The situation of the Russians will only get worse, and the political space has been completely purged. For two years, it has become dangerous for anyone to take to the streets and lead people to protest. His life. We are not masters of our own destiny and thus became victims of what is going on. The naming of the European Union should be blamed for helping the Putin regime exist all these years, with full awareness of what was happening in the country! Thank you for writing for me!’


Photo:

Carles Jedrovics

Thomas Kent, a former president of Radio Free Europe who now lectures at Columbia University, said the West now had a moral responsibility to circumvent the Kremlin’s campaign against the free flow of information using tools such as those developed by Squad303. He said the tool provided an opportunity to speak with relevant Russians willing to receive information.

“If the Russian authorities did not believe that ordinary people could undermine their power, they would not impose blanket censorship of the media,” Kent said.

In Latvia, a Baltic country that was once part of the Soviet Union, Karlis Jedrovics, CEO of an ad group called Inspired, said he sent 100 messages to phones in Russia using the Polish programmers tool.

“This is the time when everyone should be involved, it is not enough to put the Ukrainian flag on your social media,” said Gidrovics, who is 43 and speaks fluent Russian. Putin has propelled hunter-gatherer armies and a great propaganda machine, but in our democracies we must respond with a civilian movement.

Mr. Jedrovics is fluent in Russian and has dealt with a number of Russians, most of whom have responded with frequent official insults or propaganda.

He said, “It would be foolish to expect that they would change their mind, or admit to changing their minds so quickly… The state has interfered in their private lives to such an extent that they cannot express opinions contrary to propaganda.”

write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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