Propaganda spread by Russian embassy accounts puts Big Tech in bind

Western lawmakers have demanded that social media companies crack down on Russian state accounts, including the dozens of embassies, government ministries and political leaders that are part of the Kremlin propaganda machine.

US and EU politicians want platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to do more to tackle misinformation online related to the invasion of Ukraine, including curbing the more than 100 Russian embassy accounts around the world as well as government agencies such as the ministry of defense.

These groups have been pushing the Kremlin’s false narratives, including that victims of the Mariupol bombing were not civilians, Ukraine is undergoing a “Nazification” and that the country is planning to launch a biochemical attack.

“The Kremlin has armed information,” Vera Jourova, European Commission vice president for values ​​and transparency, told the Financial Times. “We call on the platforms to diligently apply their policies, reflecting that a wide network of Russian embassy and government ministry accounts belongs to the Kremlin, and take immediate steps against content that is against the law or against the terms of service.”

Big Tech platforms have increasingly been dragged into an information war around the Ukraine conflict, given their role as content gatekeepers for billions of users.

Meta-owned Facebook, Google’s YouTube and TikTok were among those forced by EU officials to block state-backed media outlets Sputnik and Russia Today in the bloc earlier this month, while companies have taken other steps to fact check or lower the reach of certain content.

These measures have prompted accusations of censorship and discrimination from Moscow, which has been retaliated against by banning Facebook and Instagram for Russian citizens and restricting access to Twitter. On Monday, a Russian court labeled the activities of Facebook and Instagram as “extremist” while confirming the decision to ban the two platforms.

Earlier this month, both Twitter and Facebook removed tweets posted by the Russian embassy in the UK that claimed that photos from the devastating bombing of a hospital in Ukraine’s Mariupol were staged, citing breaches of their rules banning the denial of violent events.

Twitter and Facebook removed posts by the Russian embassy in the UK that claimed photos from the bombing of a hospital in Ukraine’s Mariupol were staged. Taken from the Twitter feed of UK culture secretary Nadine Dorries © Twitter

Similar posts were also removed from other embassy accounts shortly after. But, so far, the social media sites have resisted a widespread takedown of official Russian state accounts around the world.

“We don’t remove accounts even when we disagree with the content they post – but we do take action when they violate our rules,” said Kevin McAlister, Facebook’s policy communications manager. “The world deserves the opportunity to hear and scrutinize the content of Russian leaders at this time.”

Many of the platforms, Facebook included, do have a “strikes” policy where they will take down any account if it has a certain number of violations, depending on the severity of the violation. Both Facebook and Twitter opted to ban former US President Donald Trump for repeated rule violations and inciting violence in the wake of the Capitol riots.

Some are calling for official Russian accounts to be permanently wiped from the platforms. Earlier this month, Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell on Twitter urged his followers to share his tweet calling for the social media platform to “BAN the baby-killing country of Russia from its platform”, garnering nearly 10,000 likes and retweets.

Republican Senator Thom Tillis has shared a screenshot of a tweet by the Russian foreign ministry which suggested that much of the footage of the Ukraine war is “mass produced fakes”, writing: “The Russian government is using Twitter as a platform to spread lies and cover up their war crimes. Why won’t Twitter flag or ban the government accounts spreading Russia’s war propaganda? ”

Jourova said the EU wanted to “strengthen” its code of practice on misinformation “urgently”, adding: “Tech platforms need to be accountable and become more transparent about the ways they moderate online content.”

These demands come as social media platforms have faced the challenge of taming an explosion of wartime propaganda across their apps, while grappling with the nuances of how to balance their free speech ethos with user safety and with government demands from both sides of the conflict.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has an official account, although this is used sparingly. However, Russia has about 120 embassies and ambassadors who have posted about Ukraine this year, according to research from data analysis group Omelas, with engagement skyrocketing on the day of the invasion.

Often the same messaging goes out verbatim across these accounts, Omelas said, an indicator of co-ordinated propaganda. Nearly 70 percent of the posts are in languages ​​other than Russian, predominantly English followed by Spanish and then French.

Russia’s foreign ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

On Friday Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, said that he and Janusz Cieszyński, Poland’s secretary of state for digital affairs, had signed a letter to Meta and Twitter asking them to “help us counter Russian-driven propaganda at their platforms” in order to “prevent Russia spreading its incitement to hatred between Ukrainian and Polish people ”.

A Twitter spokesperson said the company had taken “numerous enforcement actions on Russian embassy accounts, including labeling and requiring the removal of Tweets”, adding that it recently added labels to Russian embassy accounts making their affiliation with the Russian government clear.

EU regulators are now considering ways to strengthen the upcoming Digital Services Act, aimed at increasing responsibility of large platforms when it comes to policing the internet.

One idea under discussion is the adoption of interim measures that would allow authorities to more swiftly order take downs, according to a senior official with direct knowledge of the discussions. The EU is also looking at whether it can force platforms to quickly disclose how the content is being distributed in the case of “emergencies” such as the invasion of Ukraine.

Some warn against the west using similar tools used by authoritarian regimes to tackle war propaganda. Ben Dubow, founder of Omelas, said the ban on RT and Sputnik in Russia gave the outlets a way to “claim an honorable death”.

He said: “It’s really important as this war proceeds and we’re framing it as one between open societies and closed societies that we don’t adopt the tactics of closed societies to ideas that we find distasteful.”

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