Editing note: To protect the identity and privacy of the following sources, only the first names of dating app users are included.
Nora logged into Badoo and recorded a new message, in Russian.
“Because your media is censored, I want to share what is happening – this is the reality: Ukrainian civilians and children are being killed. Residential buildings, schools and kindergartens are bombed. Putin threatens nuclear war. Please match me. I’m English speaking but I’ll do my best to keep you up to date with what’s going on.
She sent the message to no less than 50 people on the dating app, founded by Russian entrepreneur Andrey Andreev, receiving around 20 responses before discovering that her account had been temporarily blocked.
For several weeks, the 32-year-old Bulgarian IT consultant based in New York had only consumed information about the Russian invasion. She even had a group chat with her friends in Europe, which was constantly flooded with updates on Ukraine at all hours. Like others with close ties abroad, Nora has been familiar with Russia’s propaganda tactics for years and she knew censorship was on the rise with recent crackdowns. Reading reports of atrocities in Ukraine, she became heavily invested and decided to take action by using dating apps to spread information.
“When I saw that there was a way to have a direct impact on how people perceive war, who may not have access to the correct information – when you have the ability to have even a small impact, I think it makes a difference,” she told ELLE.com on Zoom.
When it comes to injustices in the world, many young people, like Nora, feel inclined to get involved, to use their resources and to do their best to help. In fact, Nora is just one of countless people who have started using apps like Hinge, Badoo and Tinder to share news about the Russian-Ukrainian war. Although she doesn’t speak Russian herself, her parents and friends do, which is how she was able to get her initial message translated into Russian in the first place.
“People feel so helpless watching the scenes coming out of Ukraine, of all the refugees,” says Olga Lautman, senior researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “If you’re on dating apps and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I have an idea. Let me work with this, that’s how you help.
Some users added similar posts about the war directly to their English or Russian profiles. In a Instagram postLithuanian influencer and Tinder ambassador Agnė Kulitaitė urged women to jump into this news-sharing trend, writing that they could “help humanity by spreading the truth”.
“Hopefully the Russians you correspond with will read your profile and realize what their leader is doing,” Kulitaitė wrote to his 88,900 followers.
A Hinge user named Maria included photos of ruins in kyiv alongside an English news clip. Svetlana wrote that Vladimir Putin “invades and kills innocent children”. A user named Elle wrote about the country’s heavy censorship.
Swipe right. Swipe left. A new profile proclaiming the truth about Putin people.
Why turn to a dating app in the first place to get these messages across? many say they felt compelled to act in light of Russia’s strict censorship and fake news laws. The government asked citizens to describe the Russian invasion as “special military operationor face a prison sentence of up to 15 years. In addition to that, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are currently banned or blocked in the country, with the Kremlin saying Facebook allows extremist activity to occur. Bumble Inc. removed Bumble and Badoo from app stores in Russia and Belarus, but some can still access Badoo if the app is already installed.
“Young people here understand what’s going on because we’re not stupid,” a Russian-based dating app user wrote to a 25-year-old named Glen on the platform. “We don’t wake up [up] in the morning, turn on the TV and listen to everything they say.
Glen, who is based in Indianapolis, Indiana, downloaded Hinge specifically because the app lets users change their location for free, unlike Tinder or Bumble, which require them to pay for premium accounts or find a workaround. . This gave him access to a wider geographic pool of people.
In addition to sharing factual information, dozens also used Tinder to gather information and triangulate the locations of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. To preserve their anonymity, people involved in collecting this type of data often use photos of people who don’t exist, using random face generators or Photoshop.
Marijn Markus, a data scientist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, created 10 burner accounts to implement what he calls “professional catfishing”. Because he doesn’t speak Russian, he used Google Translate to communicate with the matches, often pretending he was a blonde exchange student.
“A lot of people feel very helpless in this situation, demanding that their politicians do something, but they don’t know what to do directly,” he says. “Some of them are starting to paint floral art and sell it, which is good; but as a data person, I have a beer and spend the night flirting with Russians.
Markus’ sophisticated method of catfishing has started to pick up speed over the past month, during which he’s been sharing links, screenshots, and information via Discord, Telegram, and more. Reddit posts.
“We post saying, ‘Hey, I matched with Igor, and someone else says, ‘Hey, I found Igor too, but he was only 20 miles from me,'” he said. “And then you know that Igor is 20 miles from Belgorod and 10 miles from Gomel, so you can correlate where he is on the other side of the border. If you do this 100 or 1000 times, you find ‘Igors’ everywhere across the border.
Although Markus is not involved in data analysis himself, he gathers information and shares it with others. “It’s data on one fish, but if you have data on a lot of fish, you know how the oceans move,” he adds.
Another user named Alba has reported 60 accounts to Ukraine’s IT Army and the official “Stop Russian War” bot on Telegram, which allows those using its messaging service to report activity directly to Ukraine’s security service.
“It’s interesting to participate in, probably, the first computer war,” says the 22-year-old biotechnology student. “When they announced the creation of an international computer army of volunteers, I was completely into it. I spoofed my location in Belgorod, a Russian town near the Ukrainian border, where there were rumors of a heavy concentration of Russian troops. They weren’t wrong.”
Those who have set their dating app location to Ukraine have used the app to donate funds, provide housing for refugees, and serve as someone Ukrainians can confide in during this difficult time.
“People are finding ways to use these platforms that are not for their intended purpose, but for positive change,” says Jess Terry, disinformation intelligence analyst at Blackbird.AI. Adds Lindsey Metselaar, founder of the popular dating podcast We Met At Acme: “I’ve seen the success of dating apps with dating, relationships and marriages, but the fact that users extend beyond relationships romantics to care for each other just goes to show how much they are really needed. It’s really great of people to think outside the box and use them in a different way.
In the past, people used dating apps to show their support for BLM or end of capitalism joke and “eat the rich”. Back when rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 last year, a man from Bumble boasted that he was part of the infamous incident. A woman on the app replied, “We’re not compatible,” before handing over screenshots to the FBI.
“All of these efforts are really important because there are many platforms, there are many people – 144 million people in Russia,” says Eto Buziashvili, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “There is still a chance of impact.”
Although Nora, Glen and other dating app users have made it their goal to share truthful information with people in Russia, they are sure to note that, of course, many have rejected their attempts.
“Good luck with your propaganda,” a Tinder user replied to Nora. “The Russian people remember what Nazism is and will eradicate all its manifestations. Putin is a great president.
Even so, she and others, like Vanessa, a 36-year-old American of Russian descent on her father’s side, see value in sharing the truth. Vanessa turned to the apps when she realized Russian citizens were being lied to.
“I know that my profile has been seen, and that, for me, it has been worth what I have done”, Vanessa, who is based in Sacramento, Calif., says. “With the state-run media in Russia only telling citizens what they want them to know, it creates the image of a child having only the beliefs of their parents. It is important to make up your own mind by exposing yourself to multiple facets, even if it’s uncomfortable.
It’s this kind of persistence and repetition, Lautman points out, that creates change.
“It’s always worth getting the truth because even if people don’t believe in something today, it will win out in the end,” Lautman says. “If today [Russian citizens] see a warning through a dating app, and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s garbage. It’s propaganda. And then in a week, they hear a friend say, “My son is dead, and, you know, he sent me this bombing video,” and then it starts to build awareness.
For now, dating app users like Nora continue to explore new and unconventional ways to help Ukraine. Some have even written “fake” Google reviews to share truths about Putin’s ambitions. One reviewer wrote: “The food was excellent! Unfortunately, Putin spoiled our appetite by invading Ukraine. Google and TripAdvisor have since disabled reviews in Russia and Ukraine. Still, they say their effort to share accurate information – one game at a time – was well worth the risk.
“The truth can go very far,” says Nora.