Russian diplomats consider disinformation an essential part of their job

While governments and social media companies are trying to suppress Russia's state media, and the disinformation they spread about the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin's diplomats step up to the plate.

19 April 2022 Tuesday 13:34
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Russian diplomats consider disinformation an essential part of their job

Russian consulates and embassies all over the globe are known to use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to divert blame for atrocities and to undermine the international support for Ukraine.

The tech companies responded by adding additional labels to Russia's diplomatic accounts, and by removing accounts from search results and recommendations. The accounts are still active and disseminating propaganda and disinformation in almost every country, partly because of their diplomatic status.

Russia's diplomatic corps has hundreds of social media accounts across every continent. This allows for the proliferation of propaganda claims and can be modified for different audiences in different countries. We have not seen any steps taken to significantly reduce this effort.

Marcel Schliebs, disinformation researcher at Oxford University's Oxford Internet Institute, said that "each week since war these diplomas have posted thousands of time, gaining more then a million engagements per week on Twitter." He has tracked over 300 social media accounts that are linked to Russian consulates, embassies, and diplomatic groups.

Some Russian embassies are active, just like those in the U.K. or Mexico. They spread falsehoods and pro-Russian propaganda to support the invasion.

50 people were killed in the Russian missile strike on a Ukrainian railway station. The Russian Embassy in the U.K. tweeted that Ukrainians were responsible. Talk of Russian war crime? The embassy claimed that it was a plot to make Russia look bad. What are those Ukrainian soldiers doing for their country? According to the Embassy, they are actually Nazis who operate under U.S. orders.

These and other conspiracy theories were tweeted by the Russian Embassy in London on Monday. Each post received hundreds to thousands of retweets and comments, as well as likes from hundreds of other Twitter users.

Nicholas Cull, a University of Southern California Professor who studies diplomacy and propaganda, said, "They must know better." A media bubble is necessary for a totalitarian regime. It is difficult to censor at home and requires you to communicate your message to a foreign and domestic audience. This is what it is.

Diplomats are the representatives of their country, and they have been known to push their nation's points of view. Russian diplomats are well-known for disinformation spreading by the Kremlin. Russian diplomats used social media platforms to disinformation about the 2014 invasion of Crimea and about poisoning of Russian dissidents.

They are often allowed to speak freely because they are representatives of a foreign country.

Sometimes they try to rewrite history. As they did in 2019, when Russian diplomatic account used the hashtag #TruthaboutWWII, to discredit the Soviet Union's original non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany. Researchers at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab discovered that Russian diplomats played a key role in the country’s sophisticated disinformation system.

According to the Atlantic Council research, "The Kremlin has a tendency to use a full spectrum model for propaganda."

Tech companies and governments have taken other steps to prevent disinformation from Russia's state-controlled media since the invasion of Ukraine. Sputnik and RT were banned by the European Union. Meta banned those outlets on platforms it controls, such as Instagram and Facebook. The tech companies also reduced the revenue from these outlets and increased efforts to label their accounts.

The Russian Embassy in the U.S. did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

In the weeks and months prior to the February invasion, there was a noticeable rise in pro-Russian propaganda about Ukraine.

According to Schliebs' research, the accounts were tweeting approximately 2,000 times per day within a week of the invasion. This resulted in more than 1,000,000 likes and comments.

Twitter's announcement earlier this month, "demotion," which is a technical move to limit accounts' reach, caused a drop in engagement. The accounts Schliebs tracked still receive about half a million likes.

To ensure that users are aware of the source of information, Facebook and Twitter have given many accounts labels with "Russian government organizations" labels. Schliebs discovered that many accounts don't have labels. Only about one third of the accounts he looked at had labels.

Twitter spokeswoman, Maria Perez, stated that the company had already labeled 260,000 tweets from Russian accounts starting February 28th and continues to add labels "on a continuous basis".

Schliebs compared tech companies' response to Russia's invasion to their actions after the 2020 U.S. Election, the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump, then-President, was removed from Twitter after inciting violence before the Jan. 6 Riot. The Russian diplomats, who have spread conspiracy theories and blamed Ukrainians on Russian atrocities, continue to be active.

He said, "By no means am i defending Trump (Trump), but if I fail to see that consistency in that policy,"

Meta made similar changes to identify Russian diplomatic accounts and limit their reach on its platforms.

The company also removed a Russian diplomat-spread post last month that suggested the deadly air strike against a Mariupol children's hospital was a hoax.

Schliebs stated that there is danger in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook putting too much pressure on diplomatic accounts. It could increase Russia's animosity toward U.S.-based technology companies. Facebook, for example, has been called an "extremist" organisation. It could force Russia and its supporters to move onto Telegram, which is less transparent and where regulators and researchers can't see what their messages are.

As the Russian Embassy in London tweeted last week, it's a shift Russia's diplomats are ready for.

It wrote, "Meet our DiploFamily via @telegram."

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