Why people around the world are phoning Russians to fight propaganda about Ukraine
A group of Lithuanians launched the Call Russia project, which has logged more than 81K calls so far
Paulius Senuta says the idea of getting thousands of volunteers to call Russians and tell them what's happening in Ukraine is based on a very simple premise.
"I fundamentally believe that most people agree that killing other people is not good," the Vilnius, Lithuania, man told As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay. "That is a game changer to swing the sentiment, we think, of most people."
That's why Senuta — alongside a network of IT, advertising and communications professionals in Lithuania — has launched the Call Russia project, encouraging Russian speakers around the world to dial a random Russian resident in an effort to counter the state narrative about the invasion of Ukraine.
The project has published a database of 40 million numbers of Russian individuals and a guide on what to say during a conversation. Senuta says volunteers have already logged some 81,000 calls over the last six days.
"There's a massive support for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and for his adventures in Ukraine that is based on the fact that people don't know what is happening," Senuta said.
"This thing we are trying to do is convey information and the human tragedy that is in the Ukraine."
Russian media crackdown
While Ukraine and its allies denounce Russia's incursion into their nation, calling it an invasion, the Kremlin calls it a "special military operation" to disarm its neighbour and dislodge leaders it calls neo-Nazis.
Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for an invasion of a country of 44 million people in which thousands have died, more than two million have become refugees and thousands have cowered, many in in bomb shelters, while their cities come under bombardment.
But that story is not being told in Russia, where several independent news outlets and foreign media, including CBC, were forced to halt operations last week after the state parliament passed a law imposing a jail term of up to 15 years for anyone found to be intentionally spreading what it called "fake" news.
Russia's Foreign Ministry says that the Western media offer a partial — and often anti-Russian — view of the world while failing to hold their own leaders to account for corruption or devastating foreign wars like the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
All of this makes countering the state narrative extremely difficult, says Senuta. He says he's personally experienced two types of calls.
"One group of people … are super angry and super negative and they're basically yelling at you, and they think you're basically a foreign agent and an instrument of Western propaganda," he said. "The other group of people are polite and nice, and you can talk with them."
But even the more receptive people, he said, are "really scared."
"They don't speak, but listen to what you're saying, which is still OK because our role is to convey to people what is happening in Ukraine," he said.
More than 3,500 people were detained at anti-war protests across Russia earlier this month, according to data provided by the Russian Interior Ministry.
Tomas, a volunteer based in Vilnius who made around 50 calls in an evening, told Reuters that all but one Russian hung up on him or refused to speak at any length. The news agency is withholding his last name.
As for the one who did speak at length, Tomas said: "He kept repeating the Russian propaganda to me, that Ukrainians are shooting civilians and bombing their own cities and Russians are saving them from the Nazis. It was weird for me."
Despite the pushback, Senuta says he believes that changing hearts and minds is the only way to stop the war.
He noted that the Call Russia project is just one of several ways people around the world are working to counter propaganda on the ground. People are also using everything from restaurant reviews to Tinder profiles to make their voices heard in the country.
"I think if we can reduce active support, we would give more space to people who are already actively protesting, and more people would go in streets," he said.
"One of the reasons that people who actively disagree don't go on the streets is because there's no widespread support. I'm totally sure if the sentiment will change, there's going to be much more people on the streets."
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Paulius Senuta produced by Chris Harbord.