How Tinder became a weapon in the Russia-Ukraine war

How Tinder became a weapon in the Russia-Ukraine war
Swiping in solidarity — Looking for ways to support Ukraine, people have been turning to the dating app to gather Russian intel and to spread awareness about the war. But just how effective are these tactics?

In the days leading up to the invasion, Ukrainian women in the East of the country started to notice that Russian soldiers’ profiles were popping up on their Tinder feeds, some posing in uniforms and holding guns in their pictures. Many soldiers reportedly gave away their strategic positions with pictures that they sent out looking for love. Now, recognising the opportunity this presents, people searching for ways to support Ukraine are using the app for digital espionage.

Sara*, a university student based in Europe, says she used to change the location of her Tinder account for fun, wanting to chat with people from different countries. But after seeing the devastation in Ukraine, she decided to change the location of her account and connect with Russian soldiers near Belgorod. At first, she planned to troll her matches, but then realised she could use Tinder to gather information. 

“I made a fresh new fake female profile with pictures taken from Google, slightly photoshopped so they couldn’t be reverse-searched or identified,” Sara says. She created a background story: “I was now a pretty girl from an English-speaking country, studying veterinary, airsoft-loving, and pro-Russian.” Sara engaged the soldiers she matched with in friendly conversations, teasing out their thoughts on the war and trying to gather information about the invasion.

Screenshot of Sara’s conversation with a Russian soldier on Tinder

Since Tinder shows how far away you are from a match, Sara realised that by creating two fake Tinder accounts and setting the locations to two different areas near the border, she could triangulate the exact locations of her matches. She has so far tipped off the Ukrainian authorities with the details of more than seventy Tinder accounts via an email and Telegram account set up by the Ukrainians to gather information. She has not been told by the Ukrainian authorities how or if the information she’s passed on has been used. 

“It was hard to know that I was using them, that I was going to betray them, trying to cause their failure or even their death,” Sara says. “It was like one of those difficult moral decisions you make in video games, it felt surreal.” 

It’s not the first time military personnel have inadvertently given up sensitive information online. In the past, it’s been reported that British spies used Grindr to collect sensitive intelligence about President Vladimir Putin’s war plans.

Athina Karatzogianni, professor of digital mobilisation and cyberwar at the University of Leicester and Principal Investigator for DigiGen, explains that there is an awareness among military strategists that this can happen. “It’s very difficult to hide troop movement at the moment, because Google has mapped absolutely everything,” Athina explains. Ukrainian news has reported that Russian troops have had their phones confiscated before heading into war in order to mitigate the risk of sensitive information being shared.

Thousands of cybersecurity professionals – known as Ukraine’s IT army – have been enlisted in the war efforts against Russia. They have been encouraging people to post information about the war in places that Russians are likely to see. This has seen people writing comments on Instagram posts of Russian celebrities and posting Google reviews of restaurants in Russian cities. Hacktivist collective Anonymous joined the fight, proposing the following restaurant review: “The food was great! Unfortunately, Putin spoiled our appetites by invading Ukraine. Stand up to your dictator, stop killing innocent people! Your government is lying to you. Get up!” 

Deploying a similar tactic to raise awareness, Lithuanian influencer Agnė Kulitaitė, whose account boasts 88,600 followers, has been encouraging her Instagram and Facebook followers to purchase Tinder Gold, or download Badoo – the most popular dating app in Russia. Badoo and Tinder’s premium service allow users to change their location to Russia and Agnė suggests her followers use the apps to educate Russian matches about the realities of the war in Ukraine.

Not everyone in Russia is aware of the actual facts. We live in a world of propaganda, so let’s help humanity by spreading the truth,” wrote Agnė in an Instagram post. “Let’s use our beautiful dating app profiles in an informative way too! Help spread the facts and educate the Russian people of the current atrocities in Ukraine.”

The idea caught on with some of Agnė’s followers. Evelina Dulkytė, who works in financial services in Vilnius, explains that she took to Tinder because of a feeling of powerlessness and a desperate desire to do something. One of the pictures Evelina uploaded on her profile showed her lying on a beach, with her chest covered by a Ukrainian flag. “I believe that with some support, Russians will take to the streets,” she says. Evelina’s profile bio included an impassioned plea, written in Russian, for people to go out and oppose the war.  

@kulagne via Instagram

“One [Russian] guy was clearly very upset about what’s happening. He sent me a four-minute voice message saying that people are just meat to Putin and it’s pointless to go out and protest, because people’s opinions don’t matter to [Putin],” she says. Others matches have been far more hostile, directing xenophobics slurs and pro-Russia messages at Evelina. 

Ugnė Plesevičiūtė, a sales manager at a Lithuanian telecommunications company, was also motivated by Agnė’s post, and she initially set her Tinder account to a small Russian town. Her messages encouraging people to take to the streets were met with a variety of responses. One of her matches responded: “I will be at the rally on Friday!!! Glory to Ukraine!! No war!! No to Putin!!”. Another match condemned the war but explained that living in a small town made it very unsafe to protest. He suggested Ugnė might have more luck messaging people in bigger cities.

The extreme consequences of protesting against the war in Russia is one of the reasons Athina is sceptical about the transformative potential of Tinder initiatives. This, paired with media censorship, means that it’s difficult to jumpstart the type of mass movement that can influence change. “If you have thousands of people saying on Facebook that they will go out to protest and you then see the physical materialisation of thousands of people, you feel emboldened to put your life on the line,” says Athina. This is arguably more difficult to achieve via the one-on-one conversations facilitated by dating apps.

Athina believes that we need to interrogate the way social media encourages influencers like Agnė to compete for eyeballs by posting subversive or controversial content such as the Tinder initiative. “There is a very melodramatic, sensational element to this,” Athina says. “It’s about creating excitement in your feed but the issue is that usually, besides increasing your reputational capital, you don’t achieve anything. But the influencers – they do get something out of it.”

Instead, Athina believes that digital mobilisation campaigns are more successful when they have a clear aim and purpose. Giving the examples of humanitarian efforts to support people fleeing Ukraine and the #AfricansInUkraine campaign, she urges digital activists to also build on-the-ground networks that can sustain internet movements past a viral moment. 

Whether Tinder could spark a mass movement is perhaps doubtful, but some are persevering. As Evelina speculates: “Perhaps if you first build a friendship, gain their trust and then try to pitch a different opinion to them little by little [it could change their views].” For those looking on in horror at the scenes coming out of Ukraine, every hopeful interaction is a reason to keep swiping. 

*Name changed to protect identity

Follow Severija Bielskytė on Twitter.

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