Feb 24, 2022 - Technology

Tech on high alert for Russia's Ukraine disinformation offensive

Animated illustration of a siren flashing on top of a computer.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Russia's Ukraine invasion, seeded by a web of state-backed disinformation campaigns, is putting Big Tech in a bind.

Why it matters: How tech firms respond to Russia's disinformation efforts in real-time could shape the role they play in future geopolitical conflicts. But already, experts argue they aren't moving quickly enough.

  • "In a way, this will be a test for American social media companies if things really escalate," said Bret Schafer, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Driving the news: Social media firms say they are closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine

  • On Thursday, after Russia attacked Ukraine, Meta's head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher announced a Special Operations Center to respond to threats in real time and a new tool to let people in Ukraine lock their profiles.
  • Twitter laid out tools for safety and encouraged users to set up two-factor authentication, as Ukraine's official Twitter account urged the company to kick Russia's official account off the platform for spreading disinformation.
  • "Some of the things they've done [in the past] like labeling, or some of the 'think-before-you-share' type interventions, have not been applied to this crisis in particular," said Nina Jankowicz, global fellow at the Wilson Center specializing in disinformation and democracy.

The big picture: Russia is no stranger to social media manipulation and sharpened its skills ahead of the 2016 U.S. election, said Simon Miles, assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

  • "That told [Russian officials] a lot about the power of this tool," he said. 'What we will probably see is them trying to use social media tools to sow as much panic and chaos from Ukraine as they possibly can."

Of note: While deploying its own disinformation campaigns, Russia has also been among the most aggressive countries in asking tech firms to remove content, imposing fines of $100 million on Google and $27 million on Meta last year for not removing material the government had banned.

  • That could make it harder for tech platforms to be rigorous about stopping disinformation campaigns, Justin Sherman, fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, told Axios.
  • Last September, both Apple and Meta removed a mobile app created by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny per the government's request, after an aggressive pressure campaign.
  • TikTok recently restored a Russian-government connected account, RIA Novosti, that had shared a video of a Ukrainian regional leader calling for evacuation over the weekend, after Russia's communications regulator intervened, per the South China Morning Post.

Be smart: Most social giants label posts and accounts from state media, but those policies don't address misinformation from everyday users abroad, nor do they address Western outlets and personalities parroting pro-Russian talking points.

  • On Tuesday, Fox News' highest-rated primetime host Tucker Carlson said Ukraine is "essentially managed by the State Department," and "Democrats want you to hate Putin, anything less is treason."
  • "We are dealing with people in the West who are influential and well-positioned, and who by amplifying some of these messages provide legitimacy, whether it's true or not," said Rita Konaev, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security's Technology and National Security Program.
  • Past conflicts in places like Myanmar, India and the Philippines show that tech giants are often caught off-guard by state-sponsored disinformation crises due to language barriers and a lack of cultural expertise.

Yes, but: Even if social platforms put new policies in place, it may once again show "that they are not well-resourced enough in contexts that are non-English speaking and non-Western," Jankowicz said.

  • Pointing users in Russia to reputable context around topics such as NATO expansion and Russian foreign policy could be useful, but it's "sticky" when "official" Russian news outlets are disseminating state talking points, she said.

What's next: Beyond social media, experts told Axios to expect more cyber warfare perpetuated by Russia on Ukraine, along with more staged or fabricated videos coming out of Russia depicting false events, a practice Russia has ramped up in the past week.

  • On Wednesday, several Ukrainian government websites went offline due to a distributed denial-of-service attack, per CNBC.

The bottom line: Assuming tech platforms are "neutral" actors when they provide platforms and services is "incorrect," Sherman said, "because even the decision to provide services to someone, from a voting rights activist to a white supremacist terrorist, is still taking a stance."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details.

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