In February of this year, reports surfaced on Twitter and Facebook that the Ukrainian government was carrying out a mass genocide of civilians.
Around the same time, conspiracy theorists began to say that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was an agent of the “New World Order”.
These claims have been thoroughly debunked, but not before gaining millions of views and providing an alleged justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. More recently, Russian and Chinese officials claimed the United States has funded research into bioweapons in Ukraine.
Social media has played a vital role in the spread of these and other false claims. We have identified a network of dozens of Russian government Twitter accounts that are using a loophole in the platform to run a coordinated disinformation program.
The dangers of disinformation
By “disinformation” we mean factually inaccurate material that is disseminated with the aim of disrupting or damaging something or someone: a politician, a political party or system, or a way of life.
Democracy depends on the ability of citizens to make informed decisions about policy, politics and world affairs. This ability is severely impaired when false and (deliberately) misleading claims are promoted as fact.
Disinformation in itself is not new, but over the past decade it has ideal place to bloom on social media platforms.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other platforms are designed as reinforcement systems† They are built to be open to everyone and increase the volume of any type of content.
Anyone with an internet connection has access to social media, where all kinds of content can be shared with a speed and reach that was impossible with heritage media.
The sheer speed at which disinformation is being spread – especially through automated “bot accounts” – makes it difficult for content moderators to keep up. The emotionalThe biased nature of much online misinformation also means that internet users and journalists are more likely to spread it without scrutinizing it too closely.
Russian accounts on Twitter
Russian government Twitter accounts have played a key role in the spread of pro-Russian disinformation. Although Twitter has fewer users than Facebook or Instagram, it is a crucial site for the production and dissemination of news.
We followed the Twitter activity of 75 official Russian government accounts and found that they are a major source and amplifier of disinformation. At the time of writing, these accounts have a combined total of 7,366,622 followers. They have been retweeted 35.9 million times, received 29.8 million likes and 4 million comments.
Between February 25 and March 3, 2022, roughly these accounts made 1,157 tweets — and about three-quarters were about Ukraine. The accounts have tried to spread false stories to justify the invasion.
The tweets below show Russian government accounts spreading disinformation: delegitimizing Ukraine as a sovereign state, sowing doubt and mistrust of the Ukrainian government and neo-Nazi infiltration, spreading “whataboutisms” that downplay the invasion of Ukraine by drawing attention to alleged war crimes committed by other countries , and spread conspiracy theories on research into bioweapons in Ukraine/US.
A loophole for governments
However, these rules do not apply to government-controlled accounts that are not labeled as media, such as foreign embassies.
As a result, these accounts flood the platform with propaganda. This is a critical gap in Twitter’s moderation practices, and one that has received little attention.
A coordinated network
The 75 Russian government accounts we studied are also working together to amplify disinformation. We their tweets analyzed and found that they often retweet the same content at about the same time.
This is a well-known tactic of coordinated disinformation or “astroturf”, where a network of accounts repeatedly retweet content to amplify it and maximize reach.
The image above shows a network visualization of coordinated retweet behavior between the 75 Russian government accounts. Larger nodes coordinate more often, links indicate retweeting within 60 seconds of each other, and the colors represent “communities” of accounts that tend to retweet together especially often.
The most prominent accounts are the two accounts of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (@mfa_russia and @mid_rf), the Russian Mission in Geneva (@mission_russian) and the Russian Embassy in the US (@rusembusa).
What can be done?
Twitter needs to do more to protect the platform from harmful content by state actors. Government accounts are still free to flood the room with false information.
Twitter’s policies and rules must be adapted to special circumstances such as war. They also need to adapt to non-Western contexts where disinformation is easily missed through automated moderation aligned with the English language and US and Western European standards.
Platforms have traditionally based on the techno-libertarian adage that “information wants to be free”. This has proved a disaster for liberal democracy and public health.
Some positive changes have been made, especially after the January 6 Capitol Riots in the US, but platforms are still designed with the principle that the other side should always be heard.
This design isn’t just the result of an impoverished understanding of political theory by young white male Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. It’s good for business: Blocking government disinformation can lead to: governments blocking platforms in retaliationcutting off valuable users.
do your homework
Individual Twitter users can also help curb the spread of state-issued disinformation by doing exactly what conspirators and disinformation actors have long encouraged: their own research†
Users can and should ask themselves: How accurate is this claim? How can the claim be verified? Who posts this information about Russia? What interest does that person or persons have in Russian state affairs? How can it amplify this content, even to criticize it, spread it unconsciously†
If a piece of information cannot be verified, or appears to be driven by bias or prejudice, it is in everyone’s best interest not to tweet or retweet.
- 1 The dangers of disinformation
- 2 Why disinformation loves social media
- 3 Russian accounts on Twitter
- 4 A loophole for governments
- 5 A coordinated network
- 6 What can be done?
- 7 do your homework