(TNS) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns that the country’s aggression will spread to social media and that the Kremlin’s long-running campaign to use the internet to sow doubt and division in democracies would confuse public opinion about war.
Instead, social media has become a surprisingly effective vehicle for galvanizing public opinion in many countries against President Vladimir Putin’s actions, while silencing much of his propaganda.
In the five years since Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, companies such as Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms Inc. and Twitter Inc., have implemented systems to s sure they wouldn’t be caught off guard next time. Their work has been aided by US intelligence warnings about the planned attack – making it harder for Putin to spread false pretenses of aggression – as well as European Union directives on media bans from Russian state.
“There was probably a miscalculation on Putin’s part about the West’s response,” said Joshua Tucker, a New York University professor who directs the Center for Advanced Russia Studies. In the United States, opposition to Putin is a rare bipartisan point of agreement, making it easy for Facebook and Twitter to act, he added. “It could be more dangerous for [social media companies] not to take decisive action.
For years, Russian agents have embedded themselves in democracies, including the United States, via social media, running fake accounts that pose as real citizens with polarizing views. Most famously, before the election that made Donald Trump president, Russia created accounts that traded memes online about burning issues like gun control and immigration, while encouraging Blacks not to vote.
Social media companies have been chastised by regulators around the world for not detecting these campaigns sooner, leading them to invest in more sophisticated content moderation systems. The efforts also raised questions about Putin’s goals and whether he was aiming to cause chaos or if he was working on something more specific, such as weakening the global response to an invasion.
“A war in Europe, preceded by a years-long campaign of propaganda and influence that has destabilized, captured and divided European and American populations,” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said in a message. posted on February 23 on Twitter. “It doesn’t appear to be a random path.”
But this time, social media companies were better prepared to crack down on Russian propaganda, acting faster at the behest of several governments and the EU. Facebook and Instagram have banned ads from Russian state-supported media, and Twitter does not run any ads in Russia. Snap blocks ads from all Russian advertisers.
Facebook and Twitter have also started labeling posts that include links to Russian state-backed media outlets so people know what they’re reading. Facebook also took down a pro-Russian disinformation network that targeted users in Ukraine.
YouTube, Google’s popular video site in Russia, hosts a number of media outlets and online personalities close to the Kremlin. RT, the state-backed network formerly called Russia Today, bills itself as the “most watched news network on YouTube”. YouTube last week removed ads from channels run by RT and other state-backed networks, blocked them in Europe and limited the amount recommended for viewers. TikTok did the same.
Laura Edelson, a researcher and disinformation expert at New York University, expressed her surprise in a tweet thread. “TECHNICAL PLATFORMS: they are not fully reinforced! ” she wrote. The companies have been helped by the US government’s unusual approach of sharing intelligence information to combat false stories from Russia. “Not leaving an information vacuum for your opponent to fill makes their job much, much harder,” she added.
Also flooding the sites: the courier of Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a folk hero for his field selfie videos during the war, providing a contrast to the imagery of Putin’s speeches in vast, opulent ballrooms. Ukrainian government accounts have posted videos, photos and even memes to bolster support for the country’s struggle.
Experience may be the most important factor guiding social media companies’ response this time. When Meta took down a disinformation network targeting Ukrainians, it was the same kind of disinformation campaign the company has run with regularity since its discovery in 2017. The technology and process needed to tag users’ posts was also well established – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have been labeling posts for years for a variety of reasons, including misinformation.
However, not everyone is ready to applaud social media companies, especially given their inability to act on issues until they become full-blown crises. Despite the blocking of Russian media in the EU, YouTube maintained most channels, and some posted videos with millions of views.
The battle is not just against Russian content. On TikTok, for example, people used old audio clips in addition to a new video to share fake “war images”, according to a report by Media Matters. Such videos can help accounts gain followers or solicit donations from sympathetic viewers. Even when videos are deleted within hours, they can garner millions of views.
“We continue to respond to the war in Ukraine with increased safety and security resources to detect emerging threats and remove harmful misinformation,” TikTok said in a statement.
Others said the blocking of state media by social media companies was too little, too late.
“Platforms should not be credited for taking temporary action against some of Vladimir Putin’s disinformation websites and popular YouTube channels,” said Gordon Crovitz, co-CEO of NewsGuard Technologies, a startup that tracks the credibility of media. information. “They’ve known for years that their users are seeing Putin’s disinformation without telling them.”
In 2014, Russia Today was one of several state-controlled news outlets that amplified government claims that Ukraine shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Only overwhelming evidence has shown that the plane was shot down by Russian-backed separatists, likely by accident.
Russia Today articles promoting the fake story were liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook, with one post reaching nearly 6,000 likes and 4,800 shares. On Twitter, conspiracy theorists would continue to link to RT and Sputnik stories to back up their outlandish claims.
It was not an isolated incident. Crimea’s disputed 2014 referendum to join Russia was presented as an exercise in democracy by RT. Three years later, Sputnik claimed that a Ukrainian language law was “linguistic genocide”. And in 2018 RT aired an interview with the Skripal poisoning suspects who claimed they were tourists simply visiting Salisbury Cathedral.
Edelson noted that while it is positive for social media to block Russian-backed media in Europe, they should also block such media worldwide. “Failing to block long-time spreaders of disinformation around the world when the government that controls them is actively trying to lie about their wartime atrocities is… NUTS,” she tweeted.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian state-owned English-language media, such as RT, produced large amounts of content relating to Ukraine. Over the past year, these posts have received more than 500,000 likes, comments and shares from Facebook users, according to research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Now companies have political cover to be aggressive against this content. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been almost universally condemned, and many restrictions on Russian state-backed media have been implemented at the behest of governments, including the European Union, which voted this weekend to block Russian state media across the bloc. Opposing an invasion by an authoritarian ruler isn’t the kind of thorny politics or political decision that Meta and Twitter typically face.
Social media platforms are deploying many of the strategies developed during other challenges, such as the spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories or the violent rhetoric that bubbled up ahead of a 2021 uprising at the United States Capitol.
Meta recently “boosted” its cybersecurity team with a special operations center and stopped Ghostwriter, a threat actor known for spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda, from posting content, including a YouTube video purporting to show soldiers Ukrainians waving a white flag and surrendering to Russian troops.
“Every passing incident probably updates their thinking,” Tucker said.
Government officials continue to ask platforms to do more to combat Russian disinformation. The prime ministers of Poland and the Baltic countries also urged Google, YouTube, Meta and Twitter to take a stand against Russia by deleting the accounts of the Russian and Belarusian governments, their leaders and associates.
There may be risks of Russia retaliating against Western tech companies’ bans on their state media. Businesses and experts fear that Russia is cutting off its citizens’ access to credible information.
After Berlin banned RT’s German operation last month, Russia responded by revoking Deutsche Welle’s accreditation, causing its Moscow office to close. Russia has also limited the performance of social media sites in its country, where citizens staged protests at the start of the war.
“If the Russians now chase all western media, I mean, then what is the net loss or gain?” said Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist and disinformation expert at the University of Bristol. “There are always consequences to that.”
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