Social media platforms on the defensive as Russian disinformation on Ukraine spreads

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These debunked posts racked up millions of likes, comments and shares on Facebook and Twitter, according to CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Meta, and POLITICO’s separate TikTok and Google YouTube review.

Social media companies are already under pressure from politicians in the United States and Europe who argue that lies ranging from Covid treatments to voter fraud – and misinformation, more generally – provide a rationale for reducing privacy protections. industry accountability, break up big tech companies or otherwise rein them in by demanding more transparency about their operations.

Today, the conflict in Ukraine is rapidly becoming a testing ground for the promises these companies have made to crack down on disinformation, especially as they have insisted that they now have a playbook that works.

But a lot of misinformation continues to pass.

Russia’s top five state-backed international media outlets have used Facebook and Twitter to share debunked reports claiming the Ukrainian military has carried out unprovoked attacks on Russian-allied forces. They also suggested that NATO countries would carry out false flag chemical weapons attacks in Ukraine’s breakaway republics to tarnish Russia’s reputation.

In the past seven days, these outlets garnered 4 million engagements – likes, shares and comments – on their Facebook posts. During the same period, Fox News’ main Facebook page received 3.8 million engagements.

“We see that there are many, many attempts to accuse Ukraine of killing civilians, saying that the Ukrainian army is trying to attack,” said Liubov Tsybulska, founder of Ukraine. Strategic Communications Centerwhich tracks the so-called hybrid threats of cyberattacks and disinformation.

“Propaganda activities have largely intensified in recent weeks,” said Tsybulska, who now advises Ukraine’s Strategic Communications Center.

Lawmakers in the US and Europe are watching, with new online content rules nearing completion in Europe and US lawmakers increasingly questioning whether social media companies are doing enough to protect people online.

“It is deeply concerning that pro-Russian disinformation has more than doubled in the region in recent weeks,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, referring to Statements by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss at the Munich Security Conference. “Social media companies must quickly step up their efforts to detect Russian lies and prevent their platforms from being exploited in the conflict.”

Lies also circulate on smaller platforms like Telegram, the encrypted messaging service, where Russian and Ukrainian channels regularly share debunked claims about the kyiv regime. But Telegram – which did not respond to a request for comment – does not have the same reach, in terms of overall users, as mainstream platforms.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok have invested billions of dollars over the past four years to improve the algorithms that flag problematic posts and to hire thousands of contractors to scour the networks for content detrimental.

They have also taken specific action against the state media of authoritarian regimes, including those in Russia. This involves adding tags to Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, and outlet Facebook pages to let readers know who is behind that content.

The conflict in Eastern Europe puts these protocols to the test.

Twitter spokesman Paolo Ganino said its security and integrity teams are monitoring risks associated with conflict in the region. TikTok spokesperson Sara Mosavi said the video-sharing platform removes content that promotes violence or harmful misinformation, although she did not elaborate on what type of material the company had removed.

Françoise Ballet-Blu, French legislator, said via Twitter that one of his TikTok videos focusing on Ukraine was mistakenly deleted for violating the platform’s content rules. TikTok did not respond when contacted for comment.

YouTube said its teams monitor so-called false flag operations, deceptive practices, piracy, phishing and incitement to violence. On Wednesday, the company said it had not detected a “significant increase” in coordinated influence operations related to Russia-linked disinformation about Ukraine.

Despite these efforts, a team within the EU’s diplomatic service that tracks Russian disinformation said it had experienced a significant increase in Kremlin-backed online disinformation since late January. This includes false accounts accusing kyiv of carrying out chemical attacks against breakaway republics and how Moscow had entered these disputed regions in a peacekeeping capacity.

On Wednesday, some of the companies announced further actions as signs of an impending invasion grew.

YouTube has banned a channel owned by Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin for violating its Community Standards.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in a statement on Thursday that it had formed a new unit – created during the conflict – to respond to potential issues on its platforms, made up of Ukrainian and Russian-speaking experts who could respond quickly to content violations, but did. does not immediately respond when asked about potential upcoming restrictions on Russian state media. Meta had created a similar unit in response to the Afghan conflict in August 2021.

The company also now allows Ukrainians to lock their Facebook profiles to combat potential cyberattacks, company spokesman Toby Partlett said.

Yet these steps pale in comparison to the waves of Ukraine-related misinformation circulating online.

Unattributed videos and photos released on platforms after the Russian invasion on Thursday falsely claimed to be footage of the Russian invasion. One such image showed fighter jets, with 200,000 views on Twitter, was actually from a 2020 airshow. Another – now deleted on Twitter, but viewed over 300,000 times – was from a video game “War-Thunder”. according to FirstDraftNews analysisa non-profit organization that tracks misinformation.

Russia-related misinformation posts on Facebook could become particularly problematic for the company, given documents leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last year that suggested disinformation in Ukraine had not been a priority for Facebook. the company.

An undated, leaked document titled “Priority of Countries for 2021” ranked countries from Tier 1 to Tier 3 for the type of internal content moderation and corporate oversight proposed. to protect local users. While Russia was in the highest bracket, Ukraine did not appear in any of the levels in the document. Meta declined to comment when asked if Ukraine is now on his internal priority list.

More broadly, tech companies have not been transparent about the real-time actions they’ve taken to dispel disinformation from the Russian state, according to Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, a watchdog group and former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton.

“We don’t really know how much they’ve changed internal policies or treatments, or if they’re doing new interventions, and what those interventions are,” he said.

As misinformation continues to spread across platforms, Meta said on Wednesday that it is start complying with Russia’s new requirements for “foreign IT companies” that he register with the Russian communications regulator – a decision that had taken months to prepare.

Western governments are taking increasingly tough measures to block Russian disinformation. The European Union, for example, on Wednesday imposed sanctions on Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT’s English-language division, as well as on Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, the “troll factory” based in Saint Petersburg. which he finances.

A senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, said there was an “astonishing” level of coordination between Kremlin disinformation networks and media outlets. Russian state, including the dissemination of propaganda through social networks.

Regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “information warfare was central to creating the pretext for this invasion and continues to be a major element of the Kremlin’s operation,” Lehrich said of Accountant Tech.

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