Google is launching an experiment to curb anti-Ukraine misinformation in Europe. It just might work.

New research finds that YouTube ads actually can thwart misinformation. Now Google's Jigsaw is preparing to test the theory in Europe.

Refugees from Ukraine are seen at the Polish/Ukrainian border crossing in Medyka on April 7, 2022. - More than 4.3 million Ukrainians have now fled their country since the Russian invasion, the United Nations said on April 7, 2022. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said 4,319,494 Ukrainians had fled across the border since the war began on February 24 -- a figure up 40,705 since Wednesday, April 6. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

In the coming weeks, YouTube and Google's Jigsaw will blanket Poland, Slovakia and Czechia with video ads designed to help people identify and refute derogatory tropes about migrants.

Photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Three months after Russia launched its brutal assault on Ukraine, sending millions of refugees over the border into neighboring countries, Yasmin Green took a trip to Poland to study how disinformation about migrants was spreading there.

But instead of finding the kind of simmering resentment she’d seen directed at so many other migrant groups, Green sensed what she called a “real euphoria” among Polish citizens about the humanitarian role they were playing. “The country of 38 million people, Poland, was taking in 4 million refugees from Ukraine with open arms,” Green said. “The whole country had become an NGO.”

She also knew it couldn’t last. As the CEO of Jigsaw, a sort of anti-extremism research group within Google, Green has seen and studied the ways viral lies about Syrian refugees have been weaponized in recent years. “I didn't know what the individual claims were going to be,” Green said, “but seeing Russia use migrant flows to disrupt countries in the context of Syria and Syrian refugees in the past in Europe, it's clear that's going to repeat itself.”

Now Green and her team are trying to test whether they can fend off those hateful ideas using a tool that too often fuels them: YouTube.

Director of research and development at Jigsaw Yasmin Green speaks onstage at WIRED Business Conference in New York City in 2017. Jigsaw CEO Yasmin Green and her team's project examines the efficacy of using video to “inoculate” people against misinformation on social media. Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images for Wired

In the coming weeks, Jigsaw and YouTube will blanket Poland, Slovakia and Czechia with a series of video ads designed to help people identify and refute derogatory tropes about migrants. The campaign, which will run for a month across several social media platforms, including YouTube, is expected to garner at least 55 million impressions — roughly equal to the population of those three countries combined.

But the videos are more than just a marketing push to burnish YouTube’s reputation. They’re part of a years-long research project at Jigsaw on the efficacy of using video to “inoculate” people against misinformation on social media. The idea is that there will never be enough fact-checkers in the world to correct all of the lies online. But there may be a way to build people’s defenses against those lies. If the group’s latest research paper is to be believed, the experiment in Eastern Europe just might work.

The paper, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, was authored by Jigsaw’s head of research Beth Goldberg, as well as a team of researchers at Cambridge University, the University of Bristol and the University of Western Australia. In a series of experiments — one of which was conducted as a live YouTube ad campaign — the researchers tested whether showing people videos about different manipulation techniques might actually help them spot instances of misinformation later on and limit their likelihood of sharing them.

The researchers controlled for different variables — participants’ age, gender, political ideology and even their “bullshit receptivity” — and found that across the board, the group’s videos made people more likely to recognize manipulation attempts after the fact and less likely to share manipulative messages than people who hadn’t seen the videos.

“It worked for conservatives and liberals. It worked for people who are already conspiratorial or not,” said Goldberg. “It even worked for people who are very receptive to bullshit, which was particularly exciting.”

The videos don’t refute any specific piece of misinformation, which Goldberg said is a key difference between this technique and the kind of fact-checking that most social platforms currently rely on. “A lot of other approaches to misinformation are both reactive and really localized,” she said. “They're trying to address a very particular claim, or they're trying to address one particular topic, so you lack the ability to scale and to move quickly.”

Instead, the videos in this experiment used apolitical animations and pop culture references from “Star Wars” or “The Simpsons” to explain how common manipulation techniques work. One video describing “emotionally manipulative rhetoric” aimed at luring people to watch something they otherwise would skip opens with stock footage of a little girl sadly hugging her teddy bear. “You might think about skipping this ad — don’t. What happens next will make you tear up,” a somber voice-over says, before flipping the script. “Kidding! You just got tricked.”

“It worked for conservatives and liberals. It worked for people who are already conspiratorial or not. It even worked for people who are very receptive to bullshit."

The researchers also developed videos on scapegoating, false dichotomies, ad hominem attacks and the use of mutually exclusive arguments. Each one built on decades of research into “inoculation theory,” which suggests people can build a response against attempts to persuade them in the same way vaccines provide an immune response against a virus. To be effective, the message must first include a warning that some kind of manipulation is coming, followed by exposure to the manipulating message and an emphatic refutation of that message.

Goldberg was inspired by prior research, which found that inoculation messaging helped build people’s resistance to extremist ideologies in lab experiments. But her team wanted to know whether the interventions would work just as well in video form.

In the lab experiments, paid participants watched the videos, then were asked to decide whether a series of social media posts were either manipulative or neutral. The researchers found that for every video, the experiment group was significantly more likely to correctly identify the posts than a control group. The videos also reduced the participants’ overall likelihood of sharing manipulative posts later.

But the real question was whether the same would be true when the researchers showed these videos not to paid participants diligently watching them in a lab, but to anyone browsing YouTube. For that experiment, the research team ran the videos as ads on YouTube, which were served to some 5.4 million people in the U.S. — about a million of whom actually watched the ads for at least 30 seconds. A subset of the group that actually watched the videos were then served another ad a day later, this time with a survey question, showing them a manipulative message and asking them which manipulation technique was being used. Once again, the group that watched the inoculation ads outperformed the control group.

The encouraging results of these studies inspired Jigsaw to work with YouTube to go even bigger with their experiment in Eastern Europe. That ad campaign is expected to generate at least 10 times as many impressions as the initial experiment. “We wanted to reach as broad an audience as possible,” Goldberg said, noting that she and her team will conduct a similar study using survey questions to measure the impact of the videos.

But unlike the videos in the earlier experiments, these ads will more directly address the war in Ukraine and warn people against manipulative messaging they may see about migrants supposedly stealing jobs and other social services. Already, experts say, those narratives are beginning to move from the fringe to the mainstream in Europe. “My sense is that there is a significant amount of disinformation concerning Ukrainian refugees since the war outbreak, but that this is gradually becoming more visible, especially in Eastern Europe, due to the wider context,” said Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a policy analyst with the European Policy Centre. Back in March, Neidhardt warned of the need to “start preparing today for the lies of tomorrow.”

“My sense is that there is a significant amount of disinformation concerning Ukrainian refugees since the war outbreak, but that this is gradually becoming more visible."

Ultimately, Green’s goal is to push YouTube and all social platforms into less reactive positions. Over the last five years, tech companies have tortured themselves over the best way to fact-check misinformation, only to realize the limits of that kind of intervention. Not only is it impossible to do at scale, but it risks alienating people who have already digested the message. But the results of these experiments suggest a major new opportunity for tech platforms to move beyond debunking specific lies.

“If we can pan out a little bit from the immediate event — the arresting examples of misinformation that are going viral — we see that there are tropes and narratives that are recurring,” Green said, “and we can build resilience to those.”


Inside Amazon’s free video strategy

Amazon has been doubling down on original content for Freevee, its ad-supported video service, which has seen a lot of growth thanks to a deep integration with other Amazon properties.

Freevee’s investment into original programming like 'Bosch: Legacy' has increased by 70%.

Photo: Tyler Golden/Amazon Freevee

Amazon’s streaming efforts have long been all about Prime Video. So the company caught pundits by surprise when, in early 2019, it launched a stand-alone ad-supported streaming service called IMDb Freedive, with Techcrunch calling the move “a bit odd.”

Nearly four years and two rebrandings later, Amazon’s ad-supported video efforts appear to be flourishing. Viewership of the service grew by 138% from 2020 to 2021, according to Amazon. The company declined to share any updated performance data on the service, which is now called Freevee, but a spokesperson told Protocol the performance of originals in particular “exceeded expectations,” leading Amazon to increase investments into original content by 70% year-over-year.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Wall Street is warming up to crypto

Secure, well-regulated technology infrastructure could draw more large banks to crypto.

Technology infrastructure for crypto has begun to mature.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Despite a downturn in crypto markets, more large institutional investors are seeking to invest in crypto.

One factor holding them back is a lack of infrastructure for large institutions compared to what exists in the traditional, regulated capital markets.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.


How I decided to go all-in on a federal contract — before assignment

Amanda Renteria knew Code for America could help facilitate access to expanded child tax credits. She also knew there was no guarantee her proof of concept would convince others — but tried anyway.

Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria explained how it's helped people claim the Child Tax Credit.

Photo: Code for America

Click banner image for more How I decided series

After the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, the U.S. government expanded child tax credits to provide relief for American families during the pandemic. The legislation allowed some families to nearly double their tax benefits per child, which was especially critical for low-income families, who disproportionately bore the financial brunt of the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.


This carbon capture startup wants to clean up the worst polluters

The founder and CEO of point-source carbon capture company Carbon Clean discusses what the startup has learned, the future of carbon capture technology, as well as the role of companies like his in battling the climate crisis.

Carbon Clean CEO Aniruddha Sharma told Protocol that fossil fuels are necessary, at least in the near term, to lift the living standards of those who don’t have access to cars and electricity.

Photo: Carbon Clean

Carbon capture and storage has taken on increasing importance as companies with stubborn emissions look for new ways to meet their net zero goals. For hard-to-abate industries like cement and steel production, it’s one of the few options that exist to help them get there.

Yet it’s proven incredibly challenging to scale the technology, which captures carbon pollution at the source. U.K.-based company Carbon Clean is leading the charge to bring down costs. This year, it raised a $150 million series C round, which the startup said is the largest-ever funding round for a point-source carbon capture company.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol covering climate. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Latest Stories