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Musk’s new Twitter policies helped spread Russian propaganda – EU

04.09.2023, 15:40

Elon Musk’s X (formerly Twitter) has played a major role in allowing Russian propaganda about Ukraine to reach more people than before the war began, according to a study released this week by the European Commission, writes The Washington Post.

The research found that, despite voluntary commitments to take action against Russian propaganda by the largest social media companies, including Meta, Russian disinformation against Ukraine, thrived. Allowing the disinformation and hate speech to spread without limits would have violated the Digital Services Act, the E.U.’s social media law, had it been in force last year, the year-long commission study concluded.

“Over the course of 2022, the audience and reach of Kremlin-aligned social media accounts increased substantially all over Europe,” the study found. “Preliminary analysis suggests that the reach and influence of Kremlin-backed accounts has grown further in the first half of 2023, driven in particular by the dismantling of Twitter’s safety standards.”

The E.U. has taken a far more aggressive regulatory approach to government-backed disinformation than the United States has. The Digital Services Act, which went into effect for the biggest social media companies Aug. 25, requires them to assess the risk of false information, stop the worst from being boosted by algorithms and subject their performance to auditing. Separately, European sanctions on Russian state media have prompted YouTube and other platforms to ban the likes of RT, the Russian news outlet formerly known as Russia Today that was once one of the most-followed channels.

The study is the starkest indication yet that the legal and voluntary measures are not getting the job done, following June warnings from E.U. Commissioner Thierry Breton that X had work to do to avoid potentially massive fines under the DSA. The research was conducted by nonprofit analysis group Reset, which advocates for greater oversight of digital platforms.

Without full access to data held by the companies — data that must be made more available under the new law — Reset relied on public information, such as the number of interactions that problematic content drew from people who had not been following the account that posted it.

Musk’s X was not alone in having failed to stop the spread of Russian propaganda, the study found. Instagram, Telegram and Facebook, owned by Meta, also drew criticism.

Reset senior adviser Felix Kartte told The Washington Post that the myriad propaganda campaigns used hate speech, boosted extremists and threatened national security, potentially influencing European elections next year.

The researchers said the law and the social media companies were not equipped for a full information war of the type Russia has been waging across state-owned official accounts, aligned accounts and others. Russian interests also coordinated actions by volunteers on Telegram channels, such as Cyber Front Z, urging simultaneous posts to manipulate the formulas that boost popular content. They filed false mass claims that pro-Ukraine accounts were violating platform rules to get them suspended, and they intimidated others with doxing and other threats.

Using one key technique, the propagandists first posted numerous messages in unregulated spaces with less traffic, then promoted those postings with links on more popular channels.

“No [social media] platform introduced policies addressing all or even most Kremlin-operated accounts,” they wrote. “In addition, platforms fundamentally ignored cross-platform coordinated campaigns.”

X and Meta did not respond to requests for comment.

Though the main period of study was 2022, “the reach of pro-Kremlin accounts has increased between January and May of 2023, with average engagement rising by 22 percent across online platforms,” Reset found. “However, this increased reach was largely driven by Twitter, where engagement grew by 36 percent after CEO Elon Musk decided to lift mitigation measures on Kremlin-backed accounts, arguing that ‘all news is to some degree propaganda.’”

Musk withdrew his social media platform from the voluntary code of conduct for combating disinformation that was widely propagated in June 2022, and he has eased content rules and cut enforcement staff.

Under Musk’s ownership, the company has dropped the state-affiliated media labels it had been attaching to RT and other Kremlin-controlled accounts. Propagandists have also paid for the platform’s blue-check verification program to make their posts more prominent.

As IMI reported, X will lift the ban on paid political ads. The move was announced earlier this year, shortly after Elon Musk took over the social network previously known as Twitter. The company had originally banned such ads back in 2019 under then-CEO Jack Dorsey’s management, claiming at the time that “political message reach should be earned, not bought.”

The company now known as X said it would begin to allow political advertising as part of its efforts to build on its commitment to free expression. “In reality, X is likely in need of the ad dollars political advertising brings, given that X’s U.S. ad sales had dropped by 59% year-over-year, The New York Times reported in June,” remarks TechCrunch.

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