The information war in Ukraine
Good morning! As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, tech platforms come face-to-face with their misinformation problem. Again.
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Russia looms large over Big Tech
Tech platforms have had to make a lot of tough calls about content over the years, but what to do about Russian disinformation isn’t usually one of them. Russian propaganda has more or less been fair game for removal ever since the Internet Research Agency ran roughshod over social media giants in the run-up to the 2016 election.
But that calculus is starting to look more complicated. Early this morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced "a special military operation" in Ukraine, which Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called "a full-scale invasion of Ukraine." Now, all those sock-puppet accounts, coordinated networks and misleading videos that tech giants have been routinely removing for years aren’t just violations of some corporate content-moderation policy. They may very well become evidence in what experts warn could be Europe’s largest armed conflict since World War II.
Should all that evidence just disappear? There’s a solid argument to be made that — at least publicly — it should. Russia is actively pushing “false-flag events” as a pretext for the invasion, President Biden said earlier this week.
- Already, experts are hard at work debunking narratives that have bubbled up on Facebook, Telegram and elsewhere about Western aggression and supposed violence committed by Ukrainian forces. Leaving that content alone would risk giving those falsehoods legs.
- “What we’re seeing from Russia is lies justifying war,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of The Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. “In a physical war zone, you have to mitigate online harms that make war worse for humans.”
But there is also a huge cost to taking this content down. That’s a lesson that human rights activists, archivists and judicial organizations have had to learn the hard way before in countries including Syria and Myanmar.
- Last year, after the military coup in Myanmar, YouTube removed channels run by the country’s military forces in hopes of preventing further incitements to violence.
- But that action has also interfered with humanitarian and legal efforts to hold the perpetrators of that violence accountable, said Ben Strick, director of Investigations at the Centre for Information Resilience, which has been documenting human rights abuses in Myanmar and Afghanistan, as well as the buildup of troops around Ukraine.
- “It’s a really tricky space at the moment, and we’ll probably end up seeing that in Eastern Ukraine,” Strick said.
Archivists are now racing to grab whatever they can before it disappears. Earlier this month, blockchain startup Arweave began asking people to collect whatever they could find related to the emerging conflict and commit it to the blockchain, creating a distributed ledger no platform can touch and no government can censor.
- In eight days, this ad hoc team of archivers collected 3 million artifacts, from government press releases to TikToks to misleadingly doctored propaganda videos.
- For Sam Williams, the founder of the Arweave protocol, it’s just as important to get Russian misinformation into that archive as it is to preserve the truth.
- “The social media platforms are focused on helping people talk to each other today,” he said. “We're trying to focus on helping historians understand what happened today 20 or 100 or 300 years from now, with as clear eyes as they can.”
Meanwhile, social platforms are once again central to understanding the situation in Ukraine as it unfolds.
- As governments give wildly varying accounts of what's going on, locals are sharing videos of troop movements and explosions around Ukraine. Many have also used Twitter Spaces to share real-time information, offer tips and generally support one another.
- Twitter accidentally removed some of those accounts yesterday, a mistake it attributed to human error. Meanwhile, of course, misinformation and disinformation continue to thrive on the platform as it always does in moments like this. (If you're looking for a better way to keep up, Twitter's Kayvon Beykpour recommended using Twitter Lists.)
- Leaders in tech and elsewhere are also using social media to tweet their support for Ukraine. "I grew up in Russia, have many loved ones there, and have held dual citizenship since immigrating to the US," Webflow's Vlad Magdalin tweeted. "With a heavy heart, I'm renouncing my citizenship after their regime's shameful act of war.
As U.S. tech platforms become an increasingly prominent battleground in global conflicts, they face an important question, Brookie said: “How do you mitigate online harms that make war worse for civilians while preserving evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes potentially?”
There’s no set international framework for how to reconcile that tension. But maybe there should be.
This story originally appeared in the Protocol Policy newsletter. Subscribe here to get every issue.
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