How Russia benefits from ill-informed social media policies

Protesters wearing a 'Free Navalny' face masks seen during a symbolic rally in support of the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

During this bloody war, the Kremlin’s strategy in the West seeks to benefit by exploiting our fears of censorship. Of course, this obscures the dark irony that Russia tolerates no dissent within its borders, blocking independent media and platforms like Facebook. Just as stark is the hypocrisy of its effort to energize concerns about Western imperialism while waging an aggressive imperialist war against its neighbor.

War is always ugly. Yet since February, over every shallow grave left by Putin’s soldiers, an unofficial battalion of journalists and influencers has cast a shadow of Western denial.

Some assert that Ukraine has not been subjected to equal treatment by the social media platforms who are trying to enforce policies to mitigate circulating falsehood. One such argument came from the journalist Glenn Greenwald, who on April 13th echoed comments he made on Fox News, claiming “there is little to no censorship—either by Western states or by Silicon Valley monopolies—of pro-Ukrainian disinformation, propaganda and lies” and that “the censorship goes only in one direction.” Elon Musk, whose purchase of Twitter generated much push-back from technology experts, has made similar claims advocating free speech for Russia.

Social media companies in reality have removed multiple influence operations and reduced visibility of Russian government accounts spreading falsehood to support Russia’s war against Ukraine. Human Rights Watch offers an excellent overview of the different measures taken by the platforms during the war in Ukraine.

Earlier this month Twitter stated it had, since the start of the war received “a substantial increase in the volume of media shared with deceptive, misleading, or inaccurate context.” Twitter’s actions include labelling or removal of “more than 50,000 pieces” of misleading, inaccurate or deceptive content.

On April 13th, the pro-Kremlin account ‘Russians With Attitude’ was taken down, then restored quickly, apparently due to an error. Greenwald, in a post that was shared to his 1.8M Twitter followers, then widely by accounts on both the left and right, claimed this brief take-down shows it is not “disinformation” but rather “viewpoint-error that is targeted for silencing.”

Similar claims were made of Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector, whose account was suspended by Twitter after alleging the Ukrainian police were responsible for the massacre in Bucha. Human Rights Watch have found evidence linking the apparent war crimes to Russia.


Picture of Scott Ritter Suspension From Twitter EmailSource: Anya Parampil

His account was restored almost immediately. For pro-Kremlin accounts, suspension then reinstatement enables a wide-reaching reinforcing story about how they have been ‘silenced’ for speaking the ‘wrong narrative’. Supporters share screenshots of the banned tweet, which gives further credentials within the community as well as enabling large numbers of people to read the message Twitter sought to ‘suppress.’ A rapid resurrection helps reinforce the perception the take-down was arbitrary and undeserved.

Removed Scott Ritter Tweet Claiming Reinstation

Of course, social media enforcement actions and reporting are not going only in ‘one direction.’ This week one of the most widely followed accounts sharing information about the Ukrainian armed forces was suspended, and Twitter have not explained why. Twitter has also had to apologize for accidentally suspending researcher accounts documenting Russian attacks with open-source intelligence, who were also subjected to mass reporting. Ukrainian activists, journalists, military accounts and charities are being reported en masse as part of the Russian information war.

One example, the EuromaidanPR campaign engages in advocacy, playing a significant enough role in raising Ukrainian perspectives to be mentioned in the Washington Post recently. Within days their account was having problems, Meta first told the campaign that a “report from a third party” alleged “infringes or otherwise violates their rights” promoting threatened removal. Later they were told they needed to register for political ads. Transparent and clear explanations are essential for and building trust in social media companies’ enforcement and many struggle to contact platforms. Getting reinstated can take weeks.

When accounts are reported, this impacts those running them—and their community—acutely. Ukrainian accounts like this one struggle to get their message out.

Social media companies should understand by now though how their actions can be used to build narrative. My research shows it is part of Russia’s longstanding strategy to portray media coverage as threatening Western populations with uncertainty and deception.

Those building a career on aiding Russia in the West leverage outrage framing, exploiting these take-downs for effect. As Greenwald says, “there is a clear, demonstrable hunger in the West for news and information that is banished by Western news sources.” However, creating a ‘banished’ brand for an outsider reputation is not the same as being genuinely ‘banished.’ ‘Russians With Attitude’ remains, stronger than ever.

Ritter’s removal was immediately accompanied by support from a reporter from The Grayzone, who claimed his voice had been censored in a widely shared tweet. Far from being “small pockets of dissenting voices,” the reach of networks of left- and right-wing accounts and outlets that adopt this position on Kremlin defenders is large. This one post still displaying the apparently ‘silenced’ Scott Ritter’s false tweet about Bucha gained 5,801 Retweets and 545 Quote Tweets. Max Blumenthal also shared it with his three hundred and five thousand followers, with currently 1,086 Retweets and 76 Quote Tweets.

The Kremlin benefits twice from attempts at even handed process, first as Ukrainian accounts are mass-reported, then by those pushing the ‘censorship’ narrative when pro-Russian accounts are reported. Of course, it cannot be expected that social media companies should take down equal numbers of accounts if one country is violating rules more frequently. Even Noam Chomsky, though he extends an indefensible realist argument that Ukraine should concede a victory to Putin, admits “Russia is committing systemic war crimes in Ukraine.”

The Russian state’s view can be read in the widely reported RIA Novosti article by Timofey Sergeytsev, a “political technologist” who previously worked for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin president of Ukraine ousted during protests in 2014. He develops an argument to demonize and promote the extermination of Ukrainians. Presumably even ‘Brand Banished’ journalists saw it.

It is true of much of the Western media that the voices of the global south, the refugees, the powerless—are often absent. To use this argument of banished voices and bias to defend lies about Russian war crimes circulating on social media is abhorrent. Voices supporting Putin are not a subjugated minority.

It’s instructive to see the documents from January 6 invasion of the Capitol, some of which were published this week, do show a failure to urgently take down content, but this is another problem rooted in failure to understand powerful actors using the platform.

Twitter could not provide current data on the extent of reporting of accounts on both sides during the Ukraine war. A spokesperson told me there are “updates to come”, meanwhile Greenwald is able to argue ‘censorship’ is one-way. Despite two months of war, Twitter apparently have only 2021 transparency data available.

Taking down posts is as inadequate a solution for influence operations as it is for unintended misinformation—harm in influence operations isn’t only caused by falsehoods, and removal can backfire or even be cynically weaponized. Certainly, content moderation is needed on platforms; indeed, in some cases permanent take-downs would be appropriate rather than a series of temporary suspensions. Ritter has finally been permanently suspended under their abuse policies, Twitter confirmed to me. All his audience will see is ‘account suspended’ and a link to a generic statement. Particularly during a war, social media companies must communicate specific reasons and actual harms—trust-building is built on transparency.

New data from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue supports the argument I’ve been making: that the information war is not won, it’s changing. France has seen a parallel surge in freedom of expression tied to conspiracy networks. The information war is becoming more complex and dispersed, making a deficit I’ve highlighted of solid research into actors and industries involved in influence operations increasingly urgent. There needs to be readiness as banning state media increases the Kremlin’s dependence on proxies. Any solution should start with understanding influential actors behind campaigns, their motivations, strategies and how best to respond and communicate in a nuanced way.

In today’s world of geolocation and digital forensics, it becomes harder to hide a war crime from the world. This is why building uncertainty is vital—to undermine trust in this evidence.

Focus on tracking and content moderation as a first order response created the conditions for an online environment where Brand Banished is flourishing.

This is exactly what the Kremlin needed to advance an information war, creating doubt about the imperialist nature of its invasion of Ukraine.

Facebook is a general, unrestricted donor to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are solely those of the author and not influenced by any donation.