Social media is again being used as a battleground by Russia as it continues to try to "sell" its invasion of Ukraine to the Russian people, and to sympathizers abroad. Facebook and Twitter are trying to take stands to thwart Russian disinformation and state-run media postings, but it's probably a losing battle — and there's always TikTok.
Over the weekend, Facebook/Meta published an update on its efforts to block or stifle Russian propaganda campaigns within Ukraine, and to fact-check news reports being posted on the Facebook platform.
"We’ve established a special operations center staffed by experts from across the company, including native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, who are monitoring the platform around the clock, allowing us to respond to issues in real time," Facebook says, noting that they have already shut down a network being run by individuals in Russia and Ukraine for "coordinated inauthentic behavior."
It's a familiar playbook at this point — and should be to people in Russia and Ukraine. Russian intelligence and the Kremlin have troll farms that basically create and proliferate content that's complimentary to Russia, and denigrating Ukraine. And often this content is framed as legitimate journalism — and it's spread by actors who pose as average citizens, or spread via the existing social networks of people, unbeknownst to them.
Facebook says it has temporarily suspended the ability of users in Ukraine from being able to see the friend lists of other users, so that they can not be targeted with propaganda by pro-Russian actors. And the company is encouraging Ukrainians on Facebook to use two-factor authentication on their accounts, to prevent hacking — which is probably running rampant right now.
Both Facebook and Twitter say they are seeing coordinated efforts by two fake-news groups calling themselves News Front and South Front.
"These actors are trying to undermine trust in the Ukrainian government, suggest that it’s a failed state, suggest that the war is going very poorly in Ukraine or trying to praise Russia," says Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta's head of security policy, speaking to ABC News. Gleicher says that two propaganda campaigns the company intercepted did not appear to be very successful, but that they were trying to seed stories across the internet, including on platforms like YouTube and Telegram, with individuals "pretending to be journalists based in Kyiv."
In total, Facebook says it has pulled down 40 profiles associated with this disinformation campaign.
Furthermore, as Meta vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg said Monday, the company will be restricting access across the EU to Russian state-controlled media, like RT and Sputnik.
"We will continue to work closely with Governments on this issue," Clegg tweeted.
Twitter said it had suspended "more than a dozen accounts" likely controlled by Russian state actors which had violated the platform's policies against spam.
Ivy Choi, a YouTube spokesperson, also announced Monday that the company had taken down multiple channels tied to this influence operation.
Facebook has blamed a Belarus-based hacker group called Ghostwriter, which has previously been known to launch influence campaigns in favor of the Belarusian government.
As USA Today reported over the weekend, pro-Russian content-makers, likely on the Kremlin's payroll, have been increasingly clever in their use of TikTok. One bit of "influence" content, for instance, features "a husky puppy identified by a digitally inserted U.S. flag swip[ing] at the tail of a tabby identified by a Russian flag. The cat responds with a ferocious jab that sends the hapless dog scurrying."
Meanwhile, Ukrainians have been using TikTok to document bombings and the fight against Russian troops. As CNN reports, it's already being called The TikTok War because of how much that's being documented on the platform. And Russia can be counted on to respond with its own short videos — including one that has made the rounds purporting to be a Ukrainian soldier waving a white flag of surrender.
Facebook said that hackers had used compromised email addresses and passwords of Ukrainian journalists, government figures, and others to post this video and try to spread it on Facebook's platforms.
An estimated 70 million Russians use Facebook, and other battle could be waged over the platform itself and its Russia-based employees. As Facebook attempts to restrict access to Russian state-run media, Russia may turn around and throttle access to Facebook for all of Russia. And, as Recode suggests, the Russian government could make make good on threats it's made in the past to arrest tech employees of companies hostile to the government, and that could get ugly too.
Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms are being actively used by Russians in the antiwar effort, and Russia will likely try to stifle that as well.
But much as Facebook can never catch all the bad actors doing inauthentic things to influence the public, Russia probably can't chase down every protester or dissident — but it can probably just pull the plug on social media altogether, if it wants.