Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused global angst, putting the military superpowers of the world at odds once again, and potentially forcing an intervention that could lead to one of the biggest conflicts in decades.
And unlike similar incidents in times past, this battle is playing out in the age of social media, with memes, misinformation campaigns and scams all adding to the growing maelstrom of information, which can confuse, contort and cloud what’s actually happening in the eastern European region.
Given this, and the role that social media now plays in the dissemination of information, the platforms need to work fast to limit any misuse of their networks for questionable purpose, and many have already enacted plans to mitigate certain elements of misuse and misinformation.
Here’s a look at what’s been announced thus far from the major social apps.
Facebook is at the center of the social media information flow within the conflict zone, with around 70 million users in Russia, and 24 million in Ukraine, approximately half of the total population of each respective nation.
Late last week, the Russian Government announced that it would restrict access to Facebook due to Meta’s refusal to remove misinformation warning labels on posts from state-affiliated media. Now, Meta has taken that action a step further, by also prohibiting ads from Russian state media, and demonetizing these accounts, severely limiting the capacity for Russian authorities to use Facebook as an information vector.
Russia, of course, does have its own social media platforms and messaging tools, so there are other ways for the Kremlin to communicate their activities and motivations to Russian citizens. But Meta has taken a strong stance, while it’s also restricted access to many accounts within Ukraine, including those belonging to Russian state media organizations.
In addition to this, Meta has also established a special operations center, staffed by native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, to monitor for harmful content trends, while it’s also added new warning labels when users go to share war-related images that its systems detect are over one year old.
Meta’s also outlined a range of safety features for users in Ukraine, “including the ability for people to lock their Facebook profile, removing the ability to view and search friends lists, and additional tools on Messenger”.
Thus far, Meta seems to be staying ahead of major misinformation trends in the conflict, though the amount of posts from spammers and scammers seeking to capitalize on the situation for engagement is significant.
UPDATE (2/28): Meta has also announced that it will restrict access to content from Russian state-affiliated media outlets RT and Sputnik in response to requests from EU officials.
UPDATE: (3/1): Facebook says that it is now demoting content from Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts representing Russian state-controlled media outlets, while it’s also adding new labels which will appear when users tap on links to these outlets.
Meta has also announced that it’s making encrypted chats in Instagram available to all adults in Ukraine and Russia. Instagram has been working on encrypted messages within IG Direct for some time, as part of its broader messaging integration plan, but this is the first time that it’s gone live for users.
UPDATE (3/4) Meta has now also blocked Russian state media providers RT and Sputnik for all users in the UK, following a request from UK Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. Dorries called for restrictions on these outlets due to them spreading ‘damaging propaganda into Britain’.
UPDATE (3/4): Meta announced that it will no longer let any advertisers in Russia create or run ads anywhere in the world.
UPDATE (3/5): Russia's communications regulator has announced that the country will move to block Facebook access entirely, in response to Meta's restriction of Russian state media outlets. It's not clear, at this stage, whether Instagram and WhatsApp will also be included in this action.
UPDATE (3/9): Meta has announced that it's now downranking posts from Russian state-controlled media on Instagram, both in the main feed and in the Stories tray.
Instagram will also hide information about who users in Ukraine and Russia are following when they choose to use private accounts, in order to further protect people's privacy, while it’s added new alerts on Stories that share links to Russian state media websites.
UPDATE (3/9): Meta has announced that it’s updating its Community Help resources to ensure Ukrainians, and others in the region, can find reliable information from local UN agencies and Red Cross societies. Meta will also display a link to Community Help at the top of people’s Facebook and Instagram feeds for people in Ukraine, or for those who have left recently for neighboring countries.
Meta has also added new links to mental health resources, while it’s also sharing datasets with relevant authorities and research groups to assist in support activities, including real-time mobility data for countries bordering Ukraine to help predict refugee flows.
Meta also says that, since February 23rd, people on Facebook and Instagram have raised more than $30 million for nonprofits supporting humanitarian relief in Ukraine.
UPDATE (3/10): Meta says that it will temporarily allow some political posts that would normally violate platform rules on Facebook and Instagram to be posted in the region in order to facilitate discussion around the Russian attack.
As per Meta:
“As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have temporarily made allowances for political expression that would normally violate our rules, like violent speech, such as ‘death to Russian invaders’. We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians.”
The update does not allow for violent threats as such, but Meta will allow reasonable statements of defense within the broader context of the invasion.
UPDATE (3/11): The Russian Government has moved to label Meta an extremist organization, in response to Meta's decision to allow certain posts from Ukraine users that call for violence against Russian troops. Russia has also moved to ban both Facebook and Instagram in Russia, though WhatsApp would remain. The ban will come into effect early next week.
Instagram chief Adam Mosseri shared his thoughts on the decision:
On Monday, Instagram will be blocked in Russia. This decision will cut 80 million in Russia off from one another, and from the rest of the world as ~80% of people in Russia follow an Instagram account outside their country. This is wrong.— Adam Mosseri (@mosseri) March 11, 2022
UPDATE (3/14): As predicted, Russia's ban on Instagram has now officially been implemented.
UPDATE (3/16): Meta says that it has removed a deepfake video which shows Ukrainian President Zelensky issuing a statement that he never did. It's the first reports of deepfake content being used in this context.
UPDATE (3/17): Meta has launched a new ‘emergency relief’ feature for Facebook Groups which enables group admins to give their members access to anonymous posts, information guides, file uploads, Q&A tools, as well as the capacity to offer assistance or request help through Community Help, and raise money through nonprofit fundraisers.
Meta’s also launching a new prompt on Instagram which makes it easier to find relevant charities to donate to:
“Now, when someone searches for a nonprofit to fundraise for on Instagram, we’ll start showing organizations like UNICEF and World Central Kitchen that are supporting humanitarian efforts in Ukraine first in many countries around the world.”
Meta will also begin showing users in Ukraine new, top-of-feed notifications on Facebook on how to locate support services, like housing and immigration assistance.
UPDATE (3/31): A Russian court has labeled Meta as an 'extremist organization', which essentially bans Russian businesses from paying for ads in its apps. Both apps are already banned (as above), but the ruling will enable Russia to take more direct action to ban and remove Meta from the region. As has been the case all along, WhatsApp remains oddly not mentioned in this latest ruling.
UPDATE (4/7): As part of its Q1 Threat Report, Meta has reported that it’s disrupted various attempts by Russian and Belarusian state actors to engage in cyber espionage and covert influence operations online.
As per Meta:
“This activity included interest in the Ukrainian telecom industry; both global and Ukrainian defense and energy sectors; tech platforms; and journalists and activists in Ukraine, Russia, and abroad. These operations appear to have intensified shortly before the Russian invasion.”
Meta also says that it’s detected and addressed an increase in compromise attempts aimed at members of the Ukrainian military, which targeted individuals through email compromise. Meta says the hacker group Ghostwriter has attempted to access into the Facebook accounts of dozens of Ukrainian military personnel.
Meta has encouraged people in Ukraine and Russia to strengthen the security of their online accounts through 2FA, the use of VPN and by updating their password practices.
UPDATE (4/22): Russia's Foreign Ministry has announced that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been prohibited from entering Russia indefinitely due to the role the platform has played in 'promoting a Russophobic agenda' in relation to the invasion of Ukaine..
At the request of the Ukrainian Government, Google-owned YouTube has announced that it’s restricting access to Russian state-owned media outlets for users in Ukraine, while it’s also suspending monetization for several Russian channels.
YouTube’s also removing Russian state-owned channels from recommendations, and limiting the reach of their uploads across the platform.
As per YouTube (via The Wall Street Journal):
“As always, our teams are continuing to monitor closely for news developments, including evaluating what any new sanctions and export controls may mean for YouTube.”
In response, Russia’s state communications regulator has demanded that access to Russian media's YouTube channels be restored on Ukrainian territory.
The situation is similar to Facebook, which could eventually see YouTube also face restrictions within Russia in response.
UPDATE (3/1): YouTube is now moving to block all channels connected to Russian state-backed media outlets for all European regions
UPDATE (3/11): YouTube has announced that it's now blocking access to Russian state-funded media globally, expanding on its EU ban. YouTube will also now remove content that 'denies, minimizes or trivializes' Russia's invasion of Ukraine, while it's also paused all monetization tools for Russian users.
UPDATE (3/3): Google has now stopped selling all ads in Russia, including those within search listings, ads on YouTube, and ad placements on third-party publishing partners.
Google initially banned Russian state-funded media from buying or selling ads via its platforms, while it also invoked its ‘sensitive events’ policy, which bans marketing that seeks to take advantage of an evolving, sensitive situation.
Google’s move to ban all ads entirely comes in response to Russia's communications regulator ordering Google to stop showing YouTube ads with ‘false political information’ about Ukraine.
UPDATE (3/17): Google has announced that it will match up to $5 million in donations to Ukrainian support programs throughout April. Google says that Google.org and Google employees have already committed over $25 million in donations and in-kind support.
UPDATE (3/24): Russia's communications regulator has blocked Google News over accusations that it had been distributing misinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, Google has announced that it will not allow ads to run on websites, apps or YouTube channels which share content that it deems ‘exploits, dismisses or condones the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict’.
As it looks to help ensure optimal flow of information for users within the impacted region, Twitter has announced a temporary ban on all ads in Ukraine and Russia “to ensure critical public safety information is elevated and ads don’t detract from it”.
Twitter banned political ads, including those from state-affiliated media, back in 2019, so it’s already ahead of the curve in this respect. The ban on all ads will help to clarify information flow via tweets, while Twitter additionally notes that it’s proactively reviewing Tweets to detect platform manipulation, and taking enforcement action against synthetic and manipulated media that presents a false or misleading depiction of what’s happening.
UPDATE (2/28): Twitter is also adding labels to Tweets that share links to Russian state-affiliated media websites, while it's also reducing the circulation of this content by removing it from recommendations, downranking it in algorithm-defined timelines and more.
UPDATE (3/5): Russian authories have now blocked Twitter access for local users.
UPDATE (3/5): Twitter says that it's detected and removed around 100 accounts that had been using the pro-Russia hashtag #IStandWithPutin under its coordinated inauthentic behavior policy.
UPDATE (3/9): Twitter has implemented an official Tor onion service to help Russian users maintain usage of the platform, despite restrictions enacted by the Russian Government.
UPDATE (3/11): Twitter will now also label accounts and Tweets sharing links to state-affiliated media outlets in Belarus after discovering additional connections between Russian state media messaging and Belarusian Government accounts.
UPDATE (3/16): Twitter will now also label accounts and Tweets sharing links to state-affiliated media outlets in Ukraine. Twitter says that it's labeled more 61,000 unique Tweets sharing state-affiliated media since the beginning of the invasion, which has contributed to a 30% reduction of the reach of this content.
UPDATE (4/5): Twitter says that since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, it's removed more than 100,000 accounts for violations of its platform manipulation and spam policy, while it's also labeled or removed more than 50,000 pieces of content.
UPDATE (4/6):Twitter has announced a new update to its policy around state-affiliated media, which will essentially ban Government-owned outlets from sharing media that depicts prisoners of war in the context of the war in Ukraine. Twitter says the update is in line with international humanitarian law, and has been made in consultation with international human rights groups.
In addition to this, Twitter has also announced that it will no longer amplify or recommend government accounts belonging to states that limit access to free information, and are engaged in armed interstate conflict.
A key platform to watch right now is TikTok, with reports that Russian-affiliated groups are using the app to spread ‘orchestrated disinformation’, while thousands of related videos are being uploaded to the platform, many fake, causing significant headaches for TikTok’s moderation teams.
Here's a good example of war misinfo that's plaguing TikTok right now.— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) February 24, 2022
This video of a parachuting soldier has 20 million views on TikTok.
The top comment? "Bro is recording an invasion."
But he isn't. This video is from 2016. pic.twitter.com/6WsjpWOLVI
The introduction of monetization incentives for popular clips has also added new motivation for bad actors to create fake streams and broadcasts in the app, in a bid to lure viewers, while on the other side, reports have also suggested that Ukrainian TikTok users are using the app to communicate Russian troop locations to Ukrainian fighters.
Thus far, TikTok has made no official comment on the conflict, nor how its platform is being used. And given that TikTok is owned by China-based Bytedance, and China has backed Russia’s action in the region (to some degree), it may not take a firm stance, officially.
But already, some are labeling this the ‘TikTok War’ given the way the platform is being used, which could force TikTok to take more definitive action, and it’ll be interesting to see if and how it does so in line with its links back to the CCP.
UPDATE (2/28): TikTok has now geo-blocked content from Russian state-affiliated media outlets for users in the EU. Those outside the EU can still access this content.
UPDATE (3/4) TikTok says that it will now label content from state-affiliated media in the app, as part of its broader effort to address concerns about misinformation.
UPDATE (3/7): TikTok says that, due to Russia's new 'fake news' law, which could see local representatives or creators face prison time if the platform publishes or hosts any content that the Kremlin deems to be misinformation about the invasion of Ukraine, it will no longer allow Russian users to upload new clips of live-stream in the app.
2/ In light of Russia's new ‘fake news’ law, we have no choice but to suspend livestreaming and new content to our video service while we review the safety implications of this law. Our in-app messaging service will not be affected.— TikTokComms (@TikTokComms) March 6, 2022
Russia's fake news law was passed by the lower chamber of Russia's parliament on Friday.
UPDATE (3/11): An investigation by VICE News has found that the Russian Government has seemingly been paying TikTok influencers to post pro-Russia content, directing the users on "what to say, where to capture videos, what hashtags to use, and when exactly to post the video".
At the same time, the US Government has been meeting with TikTok influencers to brief them on the latest news about the invasion of Ukraine, as a means to help spread accurate information among younger audiences.
UPDATE (3/18): TikTok has committed $5 million in donations to support humanitarian organizations working in Ukraine.
To support those in need, TikTok has committed $5 million along with matching employee donations to @uncerf, @unicef, @refugees and @pah_org. Visit our Discover hub to learn more and show your support ????https://t.co/fv6c9QfO9m pic.twitter.com/7hCqVjG50n— TikTokComms (@TikTokComms) March 18, 2022
UPDATE (4/12): TikTok says that its teams have removed 41,191 videos in relation to the war in Ukraine, 87% of which violated its policies against harmful misinformation.
"The vast majority (78%) were identified proactively. Our fact-checking partners have helped assess 13,738 videos globally, and we've added prompts on 5,600 videos informing viewers that content could not be verified by fact checkers.
TikTok also says that it's also labeled content from 49 Russian state-controlled media accounts under its new state-controlled media policy, while it's identified and removed 6 networks and 204 accounts globally for coordinated efforts to influence public opinion and mislead users about their identities.
UPDATE (4/13): A new study has found that TikTok's efforts to restrict misinformation about Russia's invasion of Ukraine within Russia have actually backfired, with TikTok now dominated by pro-war posts for Russian users.
According to analysis by Tracking Exposed, TikTok, which banned new uploads by users in Russia on March 6th, and blocked all outside updates for Russian users, has inadvertently ended up maintaining a network of pro-war content, with no new updates coming in, and a loophole (users could still upload new videos on desktop) enabling Russian propaganda to fill the app.
Reddit has ‘quarantined’ the r/Russia subreddit due to ongoing issues with misinformation being shared in the group.
Quarantined subreddits don't show up in searches or recommendations, while any user that does come across a quarantined community is shown a warning alert like the above.
UPDATE (3/2): Reddit has also banned all links to Russian state media outlets and their foreign language affiliates across the app.
Snapchat has halted all ads running in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine in order to facilitate better information flow within the impacted region, while it's also pausing ad sales to all Russian and Belarusian entities. Snap also doesn't accept ads from Russian state-owned entities, nor does it display state-affiliated media in its app.
As per Snap:
"We stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian team members and the people of Ukraine who are fighting for their lives and for their freedom. War is a scourge on our collective humanity, and in this case, it is a direct threat to many of our team members and their families. We are praying for their safety and for peace."
Snap has also pledged over $15 million in humanitarian aid to support organizations in the region, while it's also working to help get its staff out of the impacted area. Ukraine is the home of Looksery, which Snap acquired back in 2015 as the foundational platform for its AR Lenses.
UPDATE (3/4): As a safety precaution to protect Ukrainian citizens, Snapchat has temporarily turned off the Snap Map 'heatmap' feature for Ukraine, which shows how many snaps have been created in particular locations.
“Our donation will support the Crisis Response Fund focused on providing critical services and supplies for refugees and the continued integration of mental health in the IRC’s humanitarian work in response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.”
Pinterest has also launched a special donation Pin to prompt more Pinners to donate to the IRC, while it’s working to detect and remove misinformation across its platform. Pinterest doesn’t offer advertising in Russia.
UPDATE (3/29): Clubhouse has turned its Replay feature off by default for all users in Ukraine, adding an extra level of assurance for those using the app to discuss the ongoing situation. Replays are also off by default for Russian users. Clubhouse has seen a significant increase in usage in Russia since the beginning of the invasion, as other social apps have been blocked.
The conflict is a significant concern for all of the world, but most obviously for the Ukrainian people, and our thoughts are with those directly impacted by the conflict, and their families.
Hopefully, a peaceful resolution is still a possibility.