Long stories short
- The family of Martha Mills called for a new rule giving carers and parents the right to an urgent second opinion (more in the nibs).
- Egypt bought nearly half a million tonnes of discounted wheat from Russia in a private deal.
- Xi Jinping signalled he would not attend the G20 summit in India this weekend.
Russia’s useful idiot
A report commissioned by the EU says there’s been more pro-Russian propaganda on western social media platforms since the invasion of Ukraine than before it, especially on what used to be called Twitter.
So what? The propaganda violates a code of conduct the platforms have all signed, and the EU’s Digital Services Act, which came into force for most of them last month. And the report trains a spotlight on Elon Musk, who
- bought Twitter and shed most of its staff in the period studied; and
- did so, according to a new biography, during a period of manic mood swings in which he was convinced he was defending free speech against a “woke mind virus”.
The timing is especially bad for Musk’s platform – and others – since the report’s release coincides with long-awaited claims of progress in Ukraine’s counter-offensive on the southern front.
The report says “the audience and reach of Kremlin-aligned social media accounts increased substantially all over Europe” in 2022 and that the signs are their reach and influence has grown further in 2023 “driven in particular by the dismantling of Twitter’s safety standards”.
It will revive debate on
- whether X, as it’s now known, is an online public square where anything goes, or a private platform dominated by a billionaire who needs to be held accountable for the content it promotes;
- whether Russian propaganda on X and elsewhere could materially affect Ukraine’s fortunes by influence decision-makers in a position to determine the future scale of US military aid; and
- why Musk, a visionary on many fronts, is so obtuse on Russia.
By the numbers. The report analysed 16 billion views of content on accounts with an audience of 165 million. It focused on 50,000 YouTube videos viewed 3 billion times, a million Facebook posts with a total of 227 million engagements, and 1.7 million Tweets.
A key identifier of Kremlin propaganda in the study is the use or discussion of the ‘Z’ sign plastered on tanks and armoured vehicles entering Ukraine.
1.2 billion – views of Z propaganda on TikTok alone by mid-March 2022, less than a month into the invasion.
2.5 – percentage of share pro-Kremlin Facebook posts violating EU code of conduct rules on misinformation that have been taken down.
1.5 – equivalent figure for YouTube.
A stated aim of the Kremlin is to “conduct information war against the western world”. For his own part, Musk has said he believes “all news is to some degree propaganda”.
On a personal note. The new biography by Walter Isaacson, excerpted at the weekend, says Musk’s anti-woke sentiments were partly triggered by the decision of his then 16-year-old child to transition. He is described as sanguine on first being told; less so when Jenna took up Marxism and broke off communications.
The extent to which personal factors may be influencing Musk’s and thereby X’s susceptibility to Kremlin propaganda is still hard to gauge but two points are worth noting:
- His first-hand exposure to Russia isn’t negligible but it is niche: in the early 1990s he travelled to Moscow with the express intention of buying up disused ex-nuclear ICBMs to repurpose as space rockets.
- X has become an important conduit of Russian misinformation recycled by far-right US commentators close to Trump, who is polling level and one case ahead of Biden in head-to-head polls. As Twitter, it carried 210,000 English-language posts last year using the term “Ukronazis”.
The EU is the only trans-national regulator mounting a serious effort to police and punish misinformation. It remains to be seen whether Musk will agree terms in order to preserve access to its 500 million pairs of eyeballs, or write Europe off.
Photograph Vuk Valcic/SOPA/LightRocket via Getty Images
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