The Brief – Putin owes Musk a medal

How effectively do social media platforms curb Russian disinformation? A recent European Commission report paints a worrying picture – and points the finger at Elon Musk.

The Commission made public in August a 74-page report called “Digital Services Act: Application of the Risk Management Framework to Russian disinformation campaigns”.

This research concluded that despite some measures taken, social media companies enabled the Kremlin to run a large-scale disinformation campaign targeting the EU and its allies during the first year of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – and counting.

And the mitigation measures failed, the Commission report hammered the warning home.

In particular, it found that the reach and influence of Kremlin-backed accounts grew further in the first half of 2023, driven in particular by the dismantling of Twitter’s safety standards following its takeover by Musk.

The EU had (wrongly) assumed that after the start of the full-blown war, online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok would increase their content moderation capacities and deploy the necessary resources to apply mitigation measures against Russian propaganda.

The report judged these efforts as “overall unsuccessful”.

In particular, the Commission found no evidence that the platforms were prepared to deploy the necessary resources to apply mitigation measures effectively in Central and Eastern European languages (the cases in Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak are researched in particular).

For example, the report said moderation in Czech was “almost non-existent”.

And all of this despite – in response to European Commission guidance – most major platforms signing an updated Code of Practice on Disinformation in June 2022.

It should be mentioned, however, that Twitter withdrew from the Code in May this year. Engagement on pro-Kremlin accounts grew by 36% after that, the report said.

As part of its sanctions against Moscow, the EU suspended the broadcasting activities of Russian state media outlets in the EU. But the Commission’s research showed that platforms had implemented their geoblocking policies with different levels of consistency.

By 23 February 2023, Facebook had failed to geoblock 9% of the state media accounts impacted by the three rounds of EU sanctions, whereas Twitter and TikTok had failed to geoblock, respectively, 19% and 43% of the affected accounts.

As of February 2023, Twitter—which used to publish transparency reports approximately every six months—had not released a report covering any period since December 2021. It is unclear whether this might be the consequence of recent company layoffs impacting key staffers responsible for transparency reporting.

As an example, content aimed at denigrating and dehumanising Ukrainians is still propagated freely on Twitter (now renamed X): In the period of March 2022- March 2023, 210,000 English-language tweets included the term ‘ukronazis’.

At the same time, the Commission found that official Russian government accounts – such as embassy accounts – seemed to enjoy a very considerable increase in algorithmic promotion in the period after the invasion of Ukraine and the geo-blocking of Russian state media.

On Twitter and YouTube, engagement on Russian official accounts posting in EU languages quadrupled and tripled, respectively.

The report doesn’t mention it, but other research shows that the Russian embassies in Sofia and Bratislava have become particularly impactful in spreading Russian propaganda on Facebook.

Is Musk a Russian spy, asked Lev Polyakov, host of the ‘Break The Rules’ livestream.

Ideologically, Musk seems to be close to former US president Donald Trump, although he could not run for president since he was not born in the ‘land of the free’. But he (who? Polyakov?) reports about Musk’s fascination with Putin and of his “conversations” with Putin.

Reportedly, Putin counts on the re-election of Trump as a prerequisite for winning the war in Ukraine, and in that sense, Musk can help more than the entire troll industry of the Kremlin and of the (possibly defunct) Wagner.

Personally, the author of this Brief has a problem still being on X. The platform is a far cry from what it used to be. Let’s see how things will develop.

The Roundup

The European Union has been in contact with Greece to mobilise support after Greece was hit by a deadly storm on Thursday, which came only days after a two-week deadly wildfire died out in the north.

The European Commission has proposed the European Disability Card as an EU-wide proof of disability. While welcomed, the proposal was also criticised as insufficient by disability organisations, which now urge co-legislators to take action, particularly on work and study matters.

Members of the European Parliament, led by French centrist MEP Christophe Grudler, are preparing to challenge the Parliament’s stance on EU electricity market reform, with a formal “objection” due to be presented next Tuesday.

Spain is increasingly relying on Russian natural gas even though its overall imports are falling, government data showed on Friday.

Finally, do not miss this week’s Tech Brief: DMA ‘gatekeepers’ list unveiled, car brands go against user privacy; and the Agrifood Brief: Agrifood Brief: Özdemissing in action.

Look out for…

  • Commission President Ursula von der Leyen participates in G20 leaders summit in New Delhi on Saturday-Sunday.
  • European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg Monday-Thursday, including Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the European Union address on Wednesday.
  • Commissioner Kadri Simson participates in debate on Renewable Energy Directive in Parliament on Monday.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]

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