Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has marked a new inflection point for social media, and the role that it plays in the modern information ecosystem. Now, after years of dismissals about the influence of social platforms, and how social media trends can drive real world action, we’re seeing faster, more responsive approaches to potentially harmful messaging, which has played a key role in limiting the spread of misinformation, and quashing counter-narratives that have the potential to both erode support and undermine action.
Yet, at the same time, those very same shifts highlight the importance of social platforms as propaganda tools, and how they can be - and have been - used as a means to increasingly control narratives around political and cultural events.
Which begs the question - is it better to have social platforms cut off entirely for certain regions, or does that merely grant more space for government-controlled media to fill those gaps, and dictate messaging as it sees fit?
Of course, none of the platforms themselves have chosen to be cut off - both Facebook and Twitter are reportedly either limited or cut off entirely within Russia at present, due to their refusal to comply with the Kremlin’s demands to stop censoring state-affiliated media. But even so, the lack of outside information sources likely has a massive impact on how Russian citizens perceive the action in Ukraine, with various reports showing that many Russians are indeed in support of Putin’s decisions, despite almost unanimous worldwide condemnation.
But without external input, it’s quite possible that Russians are simply unaware of the global response - or at the least, they likely have a lessened perception of such. Which is a risk of Russia being cut off - now, the only information that Russians have is largely via Kremlin-controlled channels, which can’t be good for broader understanding.
At the same time, there’s not much the platforms themselves can do about this. The only option they have is to comply, and enable their platforms to be used to spread misinformation. Which also leads to the counter concern - without being able to hear the other side, how do we know that we’re getting the full story? The quashing of pro-Russian narratives means that the platforms do indeed have control over information flow, and while the suppression of such extends well beyond social media alone in this instance, it does reinforce the fact that the news and information we see can be controlled, or at least influenced, by private organizations.
In most cases, this is in line with broader government sanctions, but still, that’s at least something of a concern.
So where are we at right now?
Currently, as per latest reports:
- Both Facebook and Twitter have been restricted or cut off in Russia, limiting the capacity for Russian users to share their perspectives beyond the nation’s borders
- Russian state media has been banned from YouTube and TikTok for users in Europe, while both are now looking to ban uploads in Russia due to the Kremlin’s new ‘fake news’ law. Reddit has also banned links to Russian state media sites
- Ads from Russian-based organizations have been banned on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and Snapchat
So pro-Russian messaging is severely limited on western social media apps, and each platform continues to work hard to stop the spread of misinformation by tackling it before it can take hold.
The positive of this, as noted, is that we’re finally seeing this element taken more seriously, and we’re finally seeing platforms take more definitive, proactive stances on potentially harmful misinformation before it’s too late. Platforms dismissed trends like the rise of QAnon for far too long, despite repeated warnings, preferring to let users exercise their rights to free speech, and explaining it away as just that, just talk among niche groups. Now we know where that can lead, and it’s a major positive to see immediate reaction on misinformation in this case, which has played a big role in limiting its impact.
That, really, is what’s needed, and it feels like the key learning of the past decade of evolving social media usage.
But then again, that’s also reliant on there being a definitive truth, and for the platforms themselves to decide on such quickly. In this case, that’s clear, based on global response, but it won’t always be so straightforward.
So while social platforms are being praised for their rapid response in this instance, and it does feel like a significant point in the battle against online misinformation campaigns, it may not be indicative, as such, and it may not limit the next rising, dangerous trend.
Unless a definitive battle plan is established. What we need now is for the platforms to work together, as an industry, in partnership with third-party fact-checkers and other legal and/or academic groups, to firm up a process of making rapid decisions on potentially dangerous trends, as soon as they’re detected, in order to ensure ongoing proactive response to limit such.
It feels like we’re at the next stage in the battle, given the current action we’re seeing, but that may not be the case, and it’s important that we recognize the value of the response that we’re seeing right now, in order to define future action on the same.
But that does, inevitably, implement a level of control over ‘free speech’ online - and if we’re essentially only seeing messages that have been approved by a network of fact checkers, corporations and even government-aligned groups (in the case of regulation) is that much better than Russia or China pushing their messages via state-affiliated partners?
It seems like it is, and you would assume that the power of democracy holds more strength in this regard, with respect to allowing a level of healthy scrutiny. But it’s a question that will inevitably come up as we look to integrate lessons learned to improve online information flow.