In recent years, social media companies have grappled with how to handle misinformation and conspiracy theories about a pandemic, a tense U.S. presidential election and an insurgency, often while facing heavy criticism from the public. legislators to do too much or too little. Today, the platforms jostle for a growing list of challenges, some of which seem almost unheard of in their history, as war unfolds in Europe.
“The question of whether we should let state actors who prevent their own citizens from seeing free speech on these [Western social media] platforms have the right to use these platforms as mouthpieces for their own propaganda is a really nuanced and complex topic,” Renee DiResta, head of technical research at Stanford’s Internet Observatory, told CNNBusiness.
Other challenges of the conflict are familiar to major platforms, such as how to prevent the rapid spread of disinformation. But given the life-or-death circumstances and Russia’s history of deploying propaganda and covert online manipulation, the stakes are raised.
After the official start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social media
was flooded with photos of bombed buildings, first-person accounts of Ukrainian civilians fleeing their homes and even videos claiming to be from soldiers engaged in the fights. Users had to sort through what could be real or old, fake or manipulated content intended to sow confusion and discord in a conflict fought in part through propaganda.
In one case, a video appearing to show a soldier parachuting into the conflict went viral on TikTok on Thursday morning, racking up millions of views. But the video was originally posted on Instagram about seven years ago, NBC disinformation reporter Ben Collins said. noted on twitter
. In other cases, clips of video games or videos of old conflicts have recirculated on the platform, claiming to show what was happening in Ukraine.
Social media companies should ‘ensure there is no overt manipulation on their platforms and then try to surface accurate information, especially in trends, to help the public understand what is going on “, said DiResta. “In those moments there will always be something that will unfortunately pass, so I think … the platforms are as transparent as possible, that is very important.
Twitter (TWTR) and the parent company of Facebook Meta (Facebook) both told CNN Business they have teams monitoring misinformation, coordinated inauthentic behavior and other potential issues related to the conflict. TikTok did not respond to requests for comment on its response to the war on their platforms.
Even with these preparations, there have already been some missteps.
Twitter faced backlash in the days leading up to the invasion for briefly deleting the accounts of open-source researchers who had shared information on the platform about the movement of Russian troops and equipment. Twitter’s Site Integrity Manager, Yoel Roth, said on Twitter on Wednesday
that the deletions were due to a “small number of human errors” committed as part of an effort to enforce company policies against manipulated media. Twitter said the accounts were quickly restored.
“Twitter’s top priority is keeping people safe,” Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy said in a statement. “As we do during major global events, our security and integrity teams monitor potential risks associated with the conflict to protect the health of the service, including identifying and disrupting attempts to amplify information. false and misleading and accelerating the speed and scale of our app.”
Twitter on Thursday and Friday, its leaders promoted live audio discussions on Twitter Spaces about the conflict hosted by journalists at major news outlets. The company also shared a series of safety tips
for users in the field in Ukraine or Russia, and organized a Twitter “the moment”
where it compiles the latest updates from trusted sources. Twitter too launched a feature
allowing users to affix a sensitive content warning to photos and videos they tweet, and Friday suspended ads in Russia and Ukraine “to ensure critical public safety information is elevated.”
On Facebook, the war in Ukraine has yet to be added to the platform’s “crisis response” page as an event where users can safely tag themselves. But the company has launched a new feature that allows Ukrainian users to lock their profiles for “an extra layer of privacy and security protection.” On Instagram, the platform shows users across the country alerts on how to protect their accounts.
“We have established a special operations center to respond in real time to activity on our platform,” Meta spokesperson Dani Lever told CNN Business on Thursday. “It’s made up of experts from across the company, including native speakers, to allow us to closely monitor the situation so we can more quickly remove content that violates our Community Standards,” Lever said.
On YouTube, videos from Russian state-funded TV channel RT continued to run ads from Friday morning. This means the media company whose US branch was forced by the US Department of Justice in 2017 to register as a “foreign agent” and which intelligence researchers said “conducts strategic messaging to [the] The Russian government’ continues to be able to monetize its presence on the video-sharing platform. YouTube labels RT’s videos with a disclaimer stating that they are funded by the Russian government.
YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi declined to comment directly to RT, but said Google was assessing what new US sanctions and export controls might mean for YouTube and its other platforms.
Google Europe said on Twitter that it was tightening security controls for users in Ukraine and that its intelligence teams were working to combat disinformation campaigns, hacking and “financially motivated abuse”.
“On YouTube, we highlight videos from trusted news sources and work hard to remove content that violates our policies,” Google said. “Over the past few days, we have deleted hundreds of channels and thousands of videos.”
However, acting on Russian accounts carries its own risks for the platforms.
On Friday, the Russian government decided to “partially restrict” access to Facebook in the country after accusing the platform of illegal censorship. Russia’s Communications Ministry claimed Facebook “violated the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens” when the social network allegedly cracked down on several Russian media outlets on its platform on Thursday.
In response to the allegations, Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said Russia ordered the company “to stop independent fact-checking and labeling” of four Russian outlets.
“We declined,” Clegg said in a statement. “Ordinary Russians are using our apps to speak out and organize to take action. We want them to continue to raise their voices, share what’s happening and organize.”