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russia uses embassies to spread propaganda on social media

11.08.2022, 11:55

According to a report by Advance Democracy research group, russia found loopholes to circumvent the bans and push its main narratives, such as demonizing Ukrainians as Nazis. This was reported by MediaSapiens with reference to The Washington Post.

Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok banned russian state media in Europe shortly after the invasion under pressure from European regulators. However, most of the restrictions did not apply to russian embassy accounts. There are good reasons for the tech platforms not to ban russian embassy accounts altogether. There are russians living in countries all around the world, and they have a legitimate interest in being able to correspond with their embassies, and vice versa. But russia quickly began using the embassies' platforms as vehicles for war propaganda.

For example, in a Facebook post in April that garnered more than 700 likes, the russian embassy in Indonesia shared a timeline that purported to prove russia wasn’t responsible for an apparent massacre of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where officials identified 458 dead bodies after weeks of russian occupation.

In another April post, the russian embassy in Australia shared on its Facebook page a video that claimed that there were "no signs of alleged mass graves" near Mariupol. But satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies showed rows of graves in the suburb.

Russian embassy Facebook accounts have found ways to launder russian propaganda from sanctioned state media accounts, such as copying and embedding videos originally produced by state-run Russia Today rather than linking to them. Since 2020, Meta — the corporate parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — has appended labels to media outlets that are under government editorial control, such as RT. But when russian embassy accounts directly embedded videos produced by RT in posts, the company did not apply warnings.

In other cases, embassy accounts directed users to follow them on social media with less strict content moderation rules. In a March publication, the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Malta announced the opening of a Telegram channel. A similar post appeared on the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Indonesia in the same month.

The report found at least 26 channels affiliated with Russian embassies operating on Telegram, more than 80 percent of which were created since the Feb. 24 invasion. They collectively have more than 50,000 subscribers.

Twitter is also a problem. There was an infamous incident when the Twitter account of the russian embassy in the UK called for a hanging of captured Azov fighters. The tweet contained a link to a YouTube video from the russian embassy in London and ended with the hashtag #StopNaziUkraine.

In response to an outcry from users, Twitter hid the tweet behind a warning label and blocked it from being shared, but let both the tweet and the russian embassy UK account remain on the platform, citing considerations of public interest. Google-owned YouTube later removed the video that the tweet had linked to, citing its rule against re-uploading content from blocked russian state media channels, though the russian embassy in London’s YouTube channel remains online.

According to a new report by Advanced Democracy, russian embassy accounts in countries around the world have received more engagement on Facebook and Twitter since the war began than they did before russia’s February 24 invasion.

russian embassy accounts’ tweets are being liked or retweeted about 279 times on average, up 240% since before the russian invasion. A similar jump has been found on Facebook, where the average number of reactions, comments or shares on an embassy account’s post rose 108% since the invasion.

"The evolution of russian propaganda techniques online was inevitable, and global tech companies can’t be expected to perfectly moderate every objectionable account or post worldwide. But that’s not to say they can’t do better," said Katie Harbath, CEO of the civic tech consulting firm Anchor Change and a former Facebook public policy director.

In order to resist the new methods of russian propaganda, Ukrainians call on Western countries to unite against disinformation.

"In kinetic war, they have at least some rules of war,” he said. “In the media sphere, nothing is prohibited. … We need to unite with at least Western governments and companies and the media sphere and develop some clear rules," suggested Heorhiy Dubinsky, Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine.

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