Russia’s lies about Ukraine flood Facebook and YouTube. Here’s how the platforms react

One result is that big Silicon Valley companies – Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram; Alphabet, owner of Google and YouTube; and Twitter – find themselves pushed into hosting a secondary battleground teeming with Russian trolls, bots, and other malicious players.

“Russia is a master of propaganda,” said Emily Dreyfuss, senior fellow in San Francisco at the Harvard Shorenstein Center, who is social media manipulation tracking related to the invasion of Ukraine. “These platforms, based here in our own territory, are being used to spread lies about a crisis in the news. There are two wars: the land war and the narrative war.

Consider two images you may have seen on social media in the past week.

• A modern photo of a shopping center in Kiev. A swastika flag hangs above. It looks like it was added via some clumsy Photoshop work. Most people would recognize this as an attempt to bolster Russian President Vladimir Putin’s outright lie that his country invaded Ukraine to “denazify” the country. He didn’t have much success online.

• A map entitled “Air strikes in the last 48 hours”. Ukraine is highlighted, as are Syria, Yemen and Somalia. The accompanying text reads: “Don’t let the Eurocentrism of the mainstream media dictate your moral support for the victims of war. A human life is a human life. Condemn war everywhere. A lot of people agree with those sentiments, and this card has gone viral. However, it too is being promulgated by Russian propagandists.

The map shows how difficult it can be to determine veracity. This is not necessarily inaccurate, but is part of an agenda to undermine trust in the media and erode support for Ukraine. Nothing openly binds her to Russia, but she was born Redfish, an organization exhibited as Moscow’s mouthpiece. (Twitter refers to Redfish’s account as “Russian state-affiliated media.”)

Social media has become an integral part of many people’s lives as a primary source of information, both public and private. This makes it fertile ground for bad actors seeking to sow discord, as Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election made clear.

“We cannot downplay the significant power and ultimate responsibility of Silicon Valley right now to ensure that truth prevails over misinformation,” said Mariana Ruiz Firmat, executive director of Kairos Action, which conducts campaigns to hold tech companies accountable.

Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media”, Agreed.

“The platforms’ biggest responsibility is to ensure that they are not used as weapons of war by the Russian military,” he said. “The intention of the Russian propaganda channels now is to dehumanize the Ukrainian people and mask the nature of their invasion.”

Companies have taken various measures to limit misinformation.

Meta, YouTube and TikTok have shut down Russian state media accounts such as RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik in the European Union. meta said he set up an operations center that includes native Russian and Ukrainian speakers to monitor posts and he found and dumped dozens of fake Russian troll accounts and pages.

Twitter said it reviews tweets for manipulation and “takes enforcement action” against those that are false or misleading. It’s also tagging suspicious accounts. YouTube has “demonetized” Russian public accounts, meaning it won’t sell ads for them. Smaller social media players such as TikTok and Telegram also said they were stepping up their attempts to shut down misinformation.

But many wonder if they should do more.

The Prime Ministers of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia wrote to the heads of Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter last week, calling on them to suspend more accounts, strengthen fact-checking and moderation of content, adjust algorithms search and stop selling ads. for disinformation providers.

“Although online platforms have made tremendous efforts to respond to the Russian government’s unprecedented assault on the truth, they have not done enough,” the prime ministers said. letter noted. “Russian disinformation has been tolerated on online platforms for years; they are now complicit in the criminal war of aggression that the Russian government is waging against Ukraine and the free world.

Similarly, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., wrote last week to Alphabet, Meta, Twitter, Reddit, Telegram and ICT Tacsaying they must fight against the use of their platforms as “key vectors for malicious actors”.

“Information warfare is an integral part of Russian military doctrine,” Warner wrote. “As this conflict continues, we can expect to see an escalation in Russia’s use of both overt and covert means to sow confusion about the conflict and promote disinformation narratives that weaken the global response. to these unlawful acts.”

Experts said the social media giants face a delicate balancing act.

“Silicon Valley companies are walking a tightrope,” said Steven Wilson, an assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University and an expert in online manipulation. “They want things to go viral because they’re getting eyeballs whether it’s true or not, but if nobody believes anything on social media, people will stop watching it. They need to (remove) misinformation/misinformation to have some level of credibility, but they have the incentive to not want to do such a good job.

And, as in the example map above, not all propaganda is easy to spot. “They’re trying to flood the environment with noise, so people have lost confidence in their ability to know what’s going on,” Wilson said.

Larissa Doroshenko, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern specializing in disinformation in Ukraine, said that while the sites have launched RT and Sputnik, they lack systematic means to ban links to state-sponsored media sites.

“There may still be tons of Russian trolls pushing these links,” she said. “Social media needs to take a tougher stance.” Additionally, she said, social media sites should add warning messages to problematic content.

Creating more ways to fight misinformation isn’t just about Ukraine, Doroshenko said.

“I fear that with every conflict now comes information warfare,” she said. Social media companies “should step up their game and think about it strategically.”

There is a flip side to the role of social media. In Russia itself, the platforms play a crucial role in helping to disseminate information to a population regularly fed with government-approved updates.

“They are one of the main ways ordinary citizens can access non-state-pushed information,” Dreyfuss said.

Underlining this, Russia blocked access to Facebook on Friday, ostensibly for its “discrimination” against Russian media.

Ross Burley, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Information Resilience, a nonprofit seeking to counter and expose misinformation and other online abuse, said tech companies have had to sharpen their defenses since at least 2016. .

“It’s not new,” he said. “Russia has always been good at spreading misinformation. It will never be able to match NATO and the United States in terms of power, financial clout and cultural impact, but it can level the playing field through disinformation, which is really cheap.

Tech companies have gotten better at countering hostile state influences, he said, but he agrees with those who say it’s still not enough.

“They’ve invested more in teams that do this stuff,” Burley said. “They have a better relationship with organizations like ours whose daily job is to spot these transactions. But the reality is that they spend a fraction of their budget countering this stuff. There are still too many openings and loopholes that hostile states take advantage of on these platforms.

Unlike the European Union, the United States does not have “strong legislation and regulations to protect users from the spread of misinformation,” said Ruiz Firmat of Kairos.

“Tech companies cannot hide behind the idea of ​​solidarity by changing their logos to match the colors of the Ukrainian flag,” she said. “Solidarity is acknowledging their role in endangering lives – and stopping the spread of hateful rhetoric.”

Carolyn Said is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @csaid

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