This article was originally published in Scientific American. It is being republished with permission.
Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, multiple social media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — announced they had dismantled coordinated networks of accounts spreading disinformation. These networks, which were comprised of fabricated accounts disguised with fake names and AI-generated profile images or hacked accounts, were sharing suspiciously similar anti-Ukraine talking points, suggesting they were being controlled by centralized sources linked to Russia and Belarus.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency used similar disinformation campaigns to amplify propaganda about the U.S. election in 2016. But their extent was unclear until after the election—and at the time, they were conducted with little pushback from social media platforms. “There was a sense that the platforms just didn’t know what to do,” says Laura Edelson, a misinformation researcher and Ph.D. candidate in computer science at New York University.
Since then, she says, platforms and governments have become more adept at combating this type of information warfare — and more willing to deplatform bad actors that deliberately spread disinformation. Edelson spoke to Scientific American’s Sophie Bushwick about how an information war is being waged as the conflict continues.
That’s what was so impressive about seeing that [Facebook and other platforms] really did start to take some action against RT in the past week, because this has been going on for such a long time. And also, frankly, [social media platforms] have had cover from governments, where governments in Europe have banned Russian state media. And that has given cover to Facebook, YouTube and other major platforms to do the same thing. In general, banning anyone — but especially banning media — is not a step anyone should take lightly. But RT and Sputnik [another Russia state-backed media outlet] are not regular media: they have such a long track record of polluting the information space.
And then the Ukrainian government has been tremendously savvy in telling the story of the Ukrainian resistance. There are definitely times when it has stepped over the line into propaganda. But in general, it has made sure that the world sees the Ukrainian resistance and the fight that the Ukrainian people are willing to put up. That [helps] people see what is going on and understand that the people who are there fighting are real people who, not that long ago, were not fighters. They were civilians, and now they are defending their country.
I think both of those things are going to be difficult to maintain over time. But if they are not maintained, then the window for Russian misinformation will open. A challenge we are all going to have to deal with is that this war is not going to be over in the next few days, but the news cycle cannot maintain this level of focus on these events. It’s shocking to say, but in three weeks’ time, you will have hours go by without thinking about it. And that is when people’s guards are going to go down. If someone is trying to spread some kind of [disinformation] — maybe the Russians make up some fake Ukrainian atrocity or something — that’s when the world is going to be susceptible to that kind of thing. And that’s when we’re going to have to remember all this stuff of “Who was telling you the story? Do we trust them? How verifiable is this account?” This is going to be part of how conflict is waged going forward.
But this is something that is new for all actors, and everyone is going to have to get used to keeping up their ground game in the information war, not just in the kinetic war.
With that small caveat, you have to remember that the most successful misinformation succeeds by appealing to emotions rather than reason. If misinformation can tap into that emotive pathway, you’re never going to question it because it feels good, and if it feels good, it’s adjacent to being true. So the first thing that I recommend is: if something makes you feel emotional — particularly if something makes you feel angry — before you share it or interact with it, really ask yourself the question “Who is promoting this, and do I trust them?”
Sophie Bushwick is an associate editor covering technology at Scientific American.