And unlike similar incidents in times past, this battle is playing out in the age of social media, with memes, misinformation campaigns and scams all adding to the growing maelstrom of information, which can confuse, contort and cloud what’s actually happening in the eastern European region.
Given this, and the role that social media now plays in the dissemination of information, the platforms need to work fast to limit any misuse of their networks for questionable purpose, and many have already enacted plans to mitigate certain elements of misuse and misinformation.
Here’s a look at what’s been announced thus far from the major social apps.
Facebook is at the center of the social media information flow within the conflict zone, with around 70 million users in Russia, and 24 million in Ukraine, approximately half of the total population of each respective nation.
Late last week, the Russian Government announced that it would restrict access to Facebook due to Meta’s refusal to remove misinformation warning labels on posts from state-affiliated media. Now, Meta has taken that action a step further, by also prohibiting ads from Russian state media, and demonetizing these accounts, severely limiting the capacity for Russian authorities to use Facebook as an information vector.
Russia, of course, does have its own social media platforms and messaging tools, so there are other ways for the Kremlin to communicate their activities and motivations to Russian citizens. But Meta has taken a strong stance, while it’s also restricted access to many accounts within Ukraine, including those belonging to Russian state media organizations.
In addition to this, Meta has also established a special operations center, staffed by native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, to monitor for harmful content trends, while it’s also added new warning labels when users go to share war-related images that its systems detect are over one year old.
Meta’s also outlined a range of safety features for users in Ukraine, “including the ability for people to lock their Facebook profile, removing the ability to view and search friends lists, and additional tools on Messenger”.
Thus far, Meta seems to be staying ahead of major misinformation trends in the conflict, though the amount of posts from spammers and scammers seeking to capitalize on the situation for engagement is significant.
At the request of the Ukrainian Government, Google-owned YouTube has announced that it’s restricting access to Russian state-owned media outlets for users in Ukraine, while it’s also suspending monetization for several Russian channels.
YouTube’s also removing Russian state-owned channels from recommendations, and limiting the reach of their uploads across the platform.
As per YouTube (via The Wall Street Journal):
“As always, our teams are continuing to monitor closely for news developments, including evaluating what any new sanctions and export controls may mean for YouTube.”
In response, Russia’s state communications regulator has demanded that access to Russian media’s YouTube channels be restored on Ukrainian territory.
The situation is similar to Facebook, which could eventually see YouTube also face restrictions within Russia in response.
As it looks to help ensure optimal flow of information for users within the impacted region, Twitter has announced a temporary ban on all ads in Ukraine and Russia “to ensure critical public safety information is elevated and ads don’t detract from it”.
Twitter banned political ads, including those from state-affiliated media, back in 2019, so it’s already ahead of the curve in this respect. The ban on all ads will help to clarify information flow via tweets, while Twitter additionally notes that it’s proactively reviewing Tweets to detect platform manipulation, and taking enforcement action against synthetic and manipulated media that presents a false or misleading depiction of what’s happening.
A key platform to watch right now is TikTok, with reports that Russian-affiliated groups are using the app to spread ‘orchestrated disinformation’, while thousands of related videos are being uploaded to the platform, many fake, causing significant headaches for TikTok’s moderation teams.
Here’s a good example of war misinfo that’s plaguing TikTok right now.
This video of a parachuting soldier has 20 million views on TikTok.
The top comment? “Bro is recording an invasion.”
But he isn’t. This video is from 2016. pic.twitter.com/6WsjpWOLVI
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) February 24, 2022
The introduction of monetization incentives for popular clips has also added new motivation for bad actors to create fake streams and broadcasts in the app, in a bid to lure viewers, while on the other side, reports have also suggested that Ukrainian TikTok users are using the app to communicate Russian troop locations to Ukrainian fighters.
Thus far, TikTok has made no official comment on the conflict, nor how its platform is being used. And given that TikTok is owned by China-based Bytedance, and China has backed Russia’s action in the region (to some degree), it may not take a firm stance, officially.
But already, some are labeling this the ‘TikTok War’ given the way the platform is being used, which could force TikTok to take more definitive action, and it’ll be interesting to see if and how it does so in line with its links back to the CCP.
The conflict is a significant concern for all of the world, but most obviously for the Ukrainian people, and our thoughts are with those directly impacted by the conflict, and their families.
Hopefully, a peaceful resolution is still a possibility.