By Brian Fung, CNN Business
(CNN) — As its troops bog down in Ukraine, the Russian government is fueling a conspiracy theory on social media about the purpose of US-funded biolabs in Ukraine.
In posts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube viewed by CNN this week, Russia’s foreign and defense ministries repeated that Ukraine had researched biological weapons – a claim that was previously been dismissed as fake by the United States, its allies and a senior United Nations official disarmament officer.
In fact, the US-supported labs are part of a program to develop vaccines and conduct peaceful research, the US saidwhile White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the Russian claim “propaganda” and a potential pretext for Russia itself to deploy chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.
The issue marks another front in the sprawling information war against Ukraine. And it highlights the challenge for social media platforms posed by Russian government accounts which critics say are freely allowed to spread disinformation to millions of users, even as those same platforms have moved to restrict Russian state media content for similar concerns.
Rather than announcing blanket restrictions on Russian government accounts, as they did with Russian state mediainstead, tech platforms have taken a more surgical approach by removing individual posts from government accounts that violate the platform’s rules.
However, as the information war continues and US officials increasingly blame the Russian government for spreading false claims, tech platforms may come under more pressure to crack down on Kremlin-linked accounts, according to disinformation experts.
“We are currently in a serious crisis situation, and we are in an information war situation where perhaps suspending these accounts, or even banning them for eternity, would make a lot of sense,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank that receives support from some tech giants, including Google and Microsoft. “For now [the platforms] we have stuck to a more free-speech approach rather than a blocking approach, which I also understand, but again we are in a very different situation with regard to what is happening in Ukraine in this moment.”
California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell put it more bluntly in a tweet last week: “RT NOW if @twitter should ban baby-killing country Russia from its platform.”
Earlier this week, Facebook deleted a post from the Russian Embassy in the UK for disputing reported facts about the bombing of a hospital in Mariupol. The post violated Facebook’s policy against denying violent events, said Drew Pusateri, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.
Similar posts from Russian embassy officials were also removed from Twitter for violating that platform’s policy against denying violent events, company spokeswoman Katie Rosborough told CNN.
The affected Russian accounts remain active on both websites, as well as the Russian Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry. On Twitter, an account run by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office still shares Kremlin promotional photos and links to press releases. And on YouTube, a Russian government channel broadcasts speeches by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“We don’t delete accounts even when we disagree with the content they post, but we do take action when they violate our rules,” Meta’sPusateri said. “The world deserves the opportunity to hear and consider content from Russian leaders right now.”
Like Facebook, Twitter tags government-run accounts, including those in Russia, for transparency. Twitter added on Wednesday that its measures to restrict Russian state media had resulted in a 30% decrease in the reach of such content and that it had also begun labeling accounts belonging to the Ukrainian and Belarusian governments.
“While we have had a policy regarding state-affiliated media and government accounts for years, the war in Ukraine poses a complicated set of challenges in how we manage accounts,” Rosborough said in a statement. “Our goal is to consistently enforce our rules while balancing the public interest.”
YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi said the platform’s policies apply equally to all users, including Russian government channels, and “our teams continue to monitor the situation closely.” Asked to name a Russia-related account that was banned from the platform, Choi said YouTube fired Vladimir Solovyov, a pro-Russian broadcaster, for repeatedly violating YouTube policies, including its policy. against incitement. But the company hasn’t identified any official Russian government accounts that have been banned.
Russia has stood up to what it describes as censorship by Western tech platforms and moved to block facebook, Instagram and, to a lesser extent, Twitter within its borders. Russian netizens have flock to digital circumvention tools in response to defeat the government’s information blackout.
Differences between platforms and how they operate have in some cases led to different policies and approaches to enforcement, Polyakova said, adding that tighter regulation could lead to more uniform policies across the board. Of the industry.
“We’ve seen this hodgepodge approach that hasn’t always been coordinated or consistent; in general, it creates a lot of vulnerabilities and openings for disinformation spreaders,” Polyakova said.
The handling of Russian government accounts by social media sites also echoes how companies have treated individual politicians for years.
Tech companies have been battling over how to handle Donald Trump’s claims – both before and during his presidency – with most platforms saying it’s important users hear what public figures have to say, if only to help them to be accountable. While some might argue it’s in the public interest for Russia’s claims to be documented and preserved, Polyakova said there will always be ways to access Russian propaganda without giving her a megaphone on social media. social.
Posts seen by CNN this week containing the debunked claims about Ukrainian biolabs did not come with warnings or content labels, although the platforms labeled the Russian accounts as government-run under existing policies.
Rapidly changing military, political and diplomatic situations can cause platforms to hesitate in many scenarios, said Karen Kornbluh, disinformation expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“It’s a tough balancing act for rigs,” Kornbluh said. “They don’t want to make the decisions in foreign policy disputes.”
But while tech companies may fear finding themselves in an awkward position, Kornbluh said, social media platforms should still consider applying some of the same restrictions they have applied to state media to Russian government accounts. Russians, “especially when it’s the same government criminalizing the truth in Russia with the new ‘fake news’ law that threatens more than a decade in prison for contradicting official war narratives.
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