Written by Les Beley, UCHOOSE. Translated by HWAG/UCMC
The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology published a report titled “The Digital Services Act: Applying the Risk Management Framework to Russian Disinformation Campaigns” in August 2023.
“The Digital Services Act (DSA) is an EU regulatory document that governs information policy on the Internet, among other things. It went into effect at the end of April 2022. Essentially, it is a modernization of old regulations to account for the global spread of social media. The start of a full-scale invasion and Russia’s active information campaign were two of the incentives for the Act’s passage.”
The authors of the report examine the effectiveness of the Digital Services Act as well as the problems of the information environment in general. The document contains statements that are abundantly clear.
The first paragraph of the introduction is as follows:
“During Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine’s first year, social media enabled Russia’s large-scale disinformation campaign against the European Union and its allies… According to preliminary analysis, the reach and influence of Kremlin accounts increased even more in the first half of 2023, owing in part to the failure to comply with Twitter’s security standards.”
Despite the fact that major social networks claimed to be combating Kremlin disinformation, their efforts were ineffective. The audience for Kremlin sources of information expanded across Europe in 2022. The report’s authors reached these conclusions after analyzing the content of major social media platforms in ten EU languages over the course of a year.
“The conclusions are self-evident. We believe that the Kremlin’s ongoing disinformation campaign not only serves Russia’s military agenda, but also endangers European Union public security, fundamental rights, and electoral processes… The disinformation strategy had two tactical goals: concealing the truth about the war and spreading lies about the alleged “special operation” to liberate Ukraine from “Nazism.”
Following the SCA’s approval in June 2022, the major social media platforms, with the exception of Telegram, signed a strengthened Code of Conduct on Disinformation based on European Commission guidelines. The voluntary code’s requirements went into effect in the second half of 2022. The companies published the results of their compliance measures in January 2023. This, however, did not produce the desired results.
Here are the experts’ key conclusions
- The ban on official Kremlin channels had little impact on the vast network of Moscow-affiliated channels. On major platforms, openly pro-Kremlin accounts that are not blocked in the EU have at least 165 million followers. Their content has been viewed at least 16 billion times in less than a year. Across the EU, Kremlin accounts and their affiliates promote the same content. Since the end of February 2022, the reach of these networks has more than doubled.
- In terms of absolute numbers, pro-Kremlin accounts continue to reach the most people on Meta platforms. However, in comparison to other platforms, their audience on Facebook and Instagram has only slightly increased. Since the start of the war, the number of subscribers to pro-Kremlin channels on Telegram has more than tripled, TikTok has more than doubled, and YouTube has increased by nearly 90%.
- In response to these risks, the platforms made only minor changes to their terms of service. The only exceptions were restrictions on Russian state media accounts and some rules prohibiting the denial of war crimes or the publication of personal information about prisoners of war. Existing laws prohibiting incitement to violence and hate speech were applied inconsistently across platforms, languages, and time periods.
- Since there was no response, pro-Kremlin channels were able to get around the bans. The Kremlin continues to mislead a large audience, incite hatred, and incite violence. The Russians have taken a number of steps to boost the reach and popularity of Kremlin narratives while silencing pro-Ukrainian voices.
- The Kremlin spreads disinformation through all major online platforms. Content moderation policies vary between social media platforms. As a result, the Kremlin steers the audience to the least regulated environment possible. The platforms’ attempts to moderate content were futile. The platforms rarely checked and removed more than half of the clearly illegal content.
- Measures aimed at limiting the algorithmic spread of Russian state media content were quite effective, but they did not reduce the systemic risks of Kremlin disinformation.
- Between January and May 2023, the reach of pro-Kremlin accounts increased, with an average engagement on online platforms of 22%. Twitter (up 36%) was primarily responsible for this increase. The network’s CEO, Elon Musk, lifted restrictions on Kremlin accounts, claiming that “all news is propaganda to some extent.”
The European Commission’s report, with its quite unambiguous wording, should have changed the situation somewhat, but the problem is that the management of social media giants is not eager to change.