War in Ukraine and Disinformation Newsletter 26 May 2022
26 May 2022
We share our research and colleagues’ analyses that explain how misinformation operations during the Russia-Ukraine war are changing the global information environment. The newsletter is a collaboration between the Programme on Democracy and Technology and PeaceTech Lab. It is prepared by Dr Aliaksandr Herasimenka with the assistance of Danielle Recanati.
Telegram has been one of the key sources of disinformation on the events in Ukraine. Many reports linked this to Telegram’s soft moderation policy. However, our research published in the Journal of Information Technology and Politics shows that trusted news content can still dominate political information on Telegram even when moderation is minimal. This finding highlights the importance of virality algorithms used by most social media platforms – but not Telegram – to increase engagement and profits. The research was co-authored by Aliaksandr Herasimenka, Jonathan Bright, Aleksi Knuutila, Philip N. Howard.
Anti-Ukraine refugee sentiments are getting amplified across the countries which accepted large populations of Ukrainians. These sentiments can be led by coordinated information campaigns. DFRLab analysed over 230k messages from 27 Telegram channels spreading anti-refugee, pro-Kremlin, and anti-vaccine Polish-language content between March 2019 and May 2022 and found that some of the channels appeared to be connected. The channels portray Ukrainian refugees as dangerous to host countries, while Russian armed forces are generally depicted as liberators. Researchers found evidence that suggests the administrators of some of these accounts might be native Russian speakers.
Hungarian state-affiliated media help to amplify Russian propaganda that targets Ukraine. According to a report published by Lakmusz, the narratives spread by these media include claims diminishing or outright denying Russia’s responsibility for the Ukraine invasion and, in some cases, blaming the US for the conflict.
The traumatic coverage of the war in Ukraine might accelerate news avoidance across several countries. In some countries, people started avoiding news more actively in recent years, and the war in Ukraine did not overt the trend according to Digital News Report 2022 by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The authors suggest that “one of the main reasons people avoid the news is because of the negative effect it has on their mood.”
Russian independent media became “significantly” less active on the leading Russian social media platform VK following the invasion of Ukraine. According to an analysis of a large open dataset presented by a group of scientists, independent media became twice less active on VK than previously and much less active than Russian state-affiliated media. VK became a key social media platform after the Russian authorities blocked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and introduced war-related censorship on its territory.
Despite multiple sanctions, internet performance in Russia has improved since the start of the war, while internet performance in Ukraine has significantly degraded due to the damage to the infrastructure. These findings come from a study conducted at Israel Institute of Technology. The researchers linked the improved Internet speed in Russia to reduced streaming consumption from leading content providers such as Netflix that discontinued their service in this country. Better internet connectivity helps to spread factual information and combat misinformation.
Almost two-fifth of user comments shared in one of the leading discussion spaces on Reddit corresponds to narratives from pro-war websites spreading misleading information. Reddit consists of communities that cover a focused topic. According to a pre-print published by researchers from Stanford University, 39.6% of comments in a community called r/Russia corresponded to ideas from the pro-Russian network, including claims about US “biological labs” in Ukraine and the need for “denazification” of Ukrainians. At the same time, posts in some other large political communities contained only a few pro-war ideas. The study also suggested an innovative way of tracing coordinated misinformation campaigns online.
A public dataset tracking the Twitter discourse on the Ukraine-Russia war containing 141 million tweets was published by University of Southern California researchers. The dataset mainly contains tweets in English published between February 17 and March 22, 2022. In the paper accompanying the release, the authors suggested that the dataset confirms evidence of public engagement with Russian state-affiliated media and other domains known to push misleading information.