As Russian accounts spread war disinformation, expert says Twitter crackdown isn’t enough

In one photo a hole is filled with bodies wrapped in black plastic and placed in a pile while Ukrainian military officials and media look over the scene. An appendage, mostly likely an arm, can be seen protruding from a mound of dirt at the bottom of the pile in Bucha.

In a different shot, the corpses of men with their hands tied behind their back lay strewn about near a staircase in the same small city, left alongside litter and an office chair as though part of the refuse. In yet another photo, a single hand pokes out from under the dirt covering a mass grave.

The images of what many say is clear evidence of the mass killing of hundreds of people in Bucha enraged the world as they made their way to media outlets around the globe over the weekend.

Calls to investigate war crimes and increase sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine grew louder once the horrific images from Bucha spread, but on Twitter, accounts belonging to Moscow were busy trying to deny and obfuscate any misdeeds by its troops — in some cases trying to paint the killings in the Kyiv suburb as a hoax.

“Read Waronfake’s website article ‘Global lies over Bucha; how people’s minds are manipulated,’” said a tweet from the Russian Embassy in Canada April 4, promoting an article on the site War on Fakes.

According to a report by the Atlantic Council think tank’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, that website first appeared the day before Russia invaded Ukraine and has been spreading disinformation under the guise of fact-checking since then.

The tweet was one of many coming from Russian government Twitter accounts trying to further a narrative that its troops were not responsible for the Bucha massacre, despite evidence to the contrary reported by journalists on the ground.

On Wednesday the platform removed another thread by the embassy in Canada offering similar denials. The previous day, Twitter had announced on its blog that it would be taking a harder line against accounts spreading disinformation as the war in Ukraine continues.

“In line with our abusive behaviour policy, specifically regarding the denial of violent events, we have taken enforcement action on numerous accounts that denied or shared misleading claims about violent actions and those affected during the war,” the company said.

Twitter did not respond to a request to from the Star to speak to someone about Russian accounts spreading disinformation. The platform said, however, that it will work to prevent disinformation from being amplified by users.

It has also expanded those it applies the “state media” affiliation designation to, prompting a threat to sue from U.K. politician George Galloway, who has written columns for Russia-backed RT television network as recently as December and hosted programs on Russian state media.

As the policies kicked in, Twitter’s approach has been simply called “a good start” by one disinformation expert.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Marcus Kolga said, while he appreciates the effort, he doesn’t understand why the Russian state accounts area allowed to exist in the first place.

“They are not contributing to any sort of meaningful dialogue, they are only there to pump out disinformation, propaganda, lies and conspiracy theories that are intended to confuse the debate, they’re intended to manipulate our understanding of what’s happening in Ukraine,” Kolga said.

“I’m not really sure why they need to be on there.”

He said it’s more of a national security issue than a free-speech issue and the accounts should simply be removed.

But Gabby Lim, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said she’s concerned about what could happen if censoring such tweets becomes commonplace. She said the actual effects such disinformation poses to democracy is hard to measure.

“When we say ‘X’ is a threat to democracy what do we really mean by that?” she said. “My fear is that governments from other countries will jump on that and use it as an excuse to pass their own somewhat draconian laws to curtail freedom of expression.”

If Twitter prevents disinformation from being amplified it could affect that disinformation’s spread on other platforms, she said. But at the same time Lim is also concerned about what could be lost as the platform removes content spread by state-backed accounts.

“This is evidence that could be used for future trials or future prosecution,” Lim said. “When Twitter is passing these policies, what are the implications for that?”

She said whether Twitter can enforce its new policies with consistency will be the next thing to watch.

Despite his critiques of Twitter, Kolga said the efforts made by the platform are far better than those of Facebook, where disinformation appears to be flowing freely and far.

“It’s seems to me they’re doing absolutely nothing to address this situation,” Kolga said. “If Facebook isn’t taking action itself that platform needs to be regulated.”

With files from the Associated Press

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