In the flood of stories from the war in Ukraine, it’s important to look at what is happening on social media and how platforms are reacting.
Below is an overview of some of the most important news related to what role are social networks play in the current situation and what else can be done to stop feeding the disinformation narratives disseminated by the Kremlin.
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Putin’s disinformation machinery took years to build and days shatter, thinks Tom Southern, Director of Special Projects at the Centre for Information Resilience.
For The Atlantic, Southern took a look at the errors made by Russia in the information war following the invasion of Ukraine. The first was the official story Putin laid out as the reason for the “special operation” as they have to call it in Moscow, here we call it war.
Second, because Russian soldiers were lied to (they thought it is a training exercise), their testimonies could have been used to counter the denazification narrative.
Third, Southern thinks Putin also seems to have severely underestimated the extent to which the West had grown wiser to its manipulation in recent years, and developed new capabilities to combat it.
All valid points, though, in my opinion, a little optimistic. Not that we don’t need good news at the moment. I would rather see a more realistic picture than a positive one.
Just take my perspective from Slovakia. By now, more than 200-thousand Ukrainians fled to or through my country directly from Ukraine via our shared border. Slovakia has moved to block disinformation websites circulating Russian propaganda in the country.
Experts warned that the influence of pro-Russian actors (still actively spreading propaganda, fake narratives and whataboutism) on Facebook is much bigger than the disinformation website.
Filip Struharik, a journalist from Denník N, has done a good job pointing out that the top-performing links about the war in Ukraine are from a far-right MEP, fascist MP and notorious disinformators (one of them a former prime minister of the country, Rober Fico).
Even now, when I open CrowdTangle and look at the posts with the most interactions it’s almost the same group at the top. Since the beginning of the war, their tone shifted to paint the war as West vs. East, US & NATO vs. Russia.
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Also, with the Slovak government sending millions of euros worth of military supplies to Ukraine, they warn of economic disaster (expensive gas and oil) and appeal to nationalist tendencies (“they have money for Ukraine, but not for you”).
Last week, I shared a list of top pro-Russian information sources in Slovakia compiled by Gerulata Technologies using their proprietary graph technology.
Many of the actors are the same on the list as those Struharik has shared. That brings me to this interview with CrowdTangle co-founder Brandon Silverman who spoke to Casey Newton on what the platforms know and are willing to share and should share to get a better understanding.
In the context of spreading disinformation and Russian propaganda few points Silverman made stood out to me that platforms (not just Facebook) could do better to help.
There is no way for researchers and journalists to look at the volume and reach of fact-checked posts or links.
Silverman also says platforms should make more data available. On Facebook thanks to CrowdTangle we see a subset of data – most interactions – that Meta likes to disapprove of as top leaders think most views are a better reflection of what’s going on. Sadly, most viewed content reports are only published quarterly.
Next, amid the criticism aimed at Meta, we know much less about what exactly is going on in Telegram groups (researchers try to follow along but it’s rather unscientific as they have to do it manually), or TikTok in general, as well as YouTube.
There is no easy way for a company like Gerulata to compile a list of top pro-Russian propaganda on these networks.
One of my friends who now works in the communication office for a top state official in Slovakia used to rally people on Facebook not to give up on the platform because it will get overtaken by disinformation.
One of the responses he used to get from friends was that it is easier for bad actors to reach more people because they can make up things and appeal to audiences’ fears.
It’s not, however, not just Facebook, with the rise of TikTok, the popular short vertical video platform is struggling to deal with posts about the war in Ukraine.
Fast Company pointed to a new report from Harvard researchers that found TikTok remained a rich source of misinformation and disinformation about Ukraine.
According to the report, by March 9th videos on TikTok featuring the hashtag “#ukraine” had collectively amassed more than 26.8 billion views. In comparison, the hashtag “#ukraine” on Instagram had 33 million posts.
Researchers point out it is hard even for skilled journalists to differentiate a fake on TikTok as the app has literally built-in media manipulation features that encourage making changes in videos, also repurposing audio.
Despite TikTok’s suspension of service in Russia, many Russian-owned and even state-run TikTok accounts are still visible on the platform and pro-Russian content is being produced in the US. Many of those videos go viral even though they are debunked.
The Harvard researchers point out many of the hardships they feel towards the platform as Silverman mentioned in the interview I talked about above.
Still, the report sees TikTok poses a unique challenge for viewers as it is hard to decipher fact from fiction. Yet, the social network is immensely popular and there is no stopping it.
Probably that was the reason for the White House to organize a meeting with 30 top TikTok influencers. According to reporting from The Washington Post, National Security Council staffers and White House press secretary Jen Psaki briefed the influencers about the United States’ strategic goals in the region and answered questions.
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In the third week of the war in Ukraine, Russia also moved to block Instagram in the country – the most popular social media platform among young Russians – just ten days after Facebook and Twitter.
The Guardian provides a good overview of reactions from various influencers and their stories of how they used the social media platform to build businesses and reach millions.
When the decision came they had to set up alternative channels on increasingly popular Telegram as well as the Russian social media VKontakte.
Others simply opted to install a VPN and continue operating as if nothing has changed. I guess when you have a large following outside Russia it makes sense.
Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri tweeted 80 million in Russia (out of 146 million) were using the social network and 80 percent followed accounts outside the country.
As many migrated to Telegram, some technology analysts warned that it may be next on the list to be blocked.
One of the last trends I want to mention is fake debunking videos that researchers have been seeing on social media.
In an investigation by ProPublica, Craig Silverman and Jeff Kao look at how unnamed actors are spread ostensible fact-checking videos that are downplaying the Russian attacks in Ukraine and saying the bombings never happened.
As ProPublica points out, the message is clear: Don’t trust footage of supposed Russian missile strikes as Ukrainians are spreading lies about what’s really going on, and pro-Russian groups are debunking them.
These videos are spreading virally on Telegram (predominantly spread on Russian-language channels), Twitter and some have been also picked up by state-controlled televisions in Russia.
Even though this is a fairly novel way of spreading disinformation, the goal is the same as it ever was: incite chaos and blur the line between what’s true and fake so that the audience is left confused.
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Hi! I'm David Tvrdon, a tech & media journalist and podcaster with a marketing background (and degree). Every week I send out the FWIW by David Tvrdon newsletter on tech, media, audio and journalism.