While governments and social media companies have moved to crack down on Russian state media and the disinformation they spread about the war in Ukraine, Kremlin diplomats are stepping up to do the dirty work.
Russian embassies and consulates around the world prolifically use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to deflect blame for atrocities while seeking to undermine the international coalition supporting Ukraine.
Tech companies have responded by adding more tags to Russia’s diplomatic accounts and removing the accounts from its recommendations and search results. But the accounts are still active and spreading disinformation and propaganda in nearly every country, in part because their diplomatic status gives them an extra layer of protection against moderation.
With hundreds of social media accounts on every continent, the Russian diplomatic corps acts as a global propaganda network, in which the same claims can be recycled and modified for different audiences in different nations. And, so far, measures to drastically reduce this effort have failed.
“Every week since the war began, these diplomats have posted thousands of times, earning more than a million Twitter engagements a week,” said Marcel Schliebs, disinformation researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute of the United States. University of Oxford. He followed more than 300 social media accounts linked to Russian embassies, consulates and diplomatic groups.
Some Russian embassies, such as those in the UK and Mexico, for example, are particularly active, producing pro-Russian propaganda and spreading lies intended to support the invasion.
The Russian missile attack on a Ukrainian train station that left 50 dead? The Ukrainians were behind it, the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted. Talking about Russian war crimes? It’s a plot by Britain to make Russia look bad, the embassy said. Those Ukrainian soldiers fighting for their country? They are in fact Nazis operating under US orders, the embassy claimed.
The Russian Embassy in London tweeted these and other conspiracy theories in a single day last week. Each post received hundreds or thousands of retweets, comments and likes, including dozens of other Twitter users pushing back on the propaganda.
“They must know better, but it’s like living and working for a totalitarian regime,” said Nicholas Cull, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies the intersection of diplomacy and propaganda. “A totalitarian regime needs a media bubble. It requires censorship at home, and it requires your own message, both for domestic and foreign audiences. It is what it is.
As representatives of their countries empowered to speak on their behalf, diplomats have always been known to advance their country’s talking points. Russian diplomats in particular have long been known to spread Kremlin disinformation. Russian diplomats have used social media to spread disinformation about the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the poisoning of Russian dissidents.
Their status as representatives of a foreign government often gave them freedom of speech.
Sometimes they even try to rewrite history, as they did in 2019, when Russian diplomatic accounts used the hashtag #TruthaboutWWII to misrepresent the Soviet Union’s original non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. . This disinformation campaign was exposed by researchers from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who determined that Russian diplomats played a central role, alongside state media and social media bots, in the the country’s sophisticated disinformation apparatus.
“The Kremlin tends to use a full-spectrum propaganda model,” the Atlantic Council researchers concluded.
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tech companies and even governments have taken other steps to stop the flow of disinformation from Russia’s state-controlled media. The European Union has banned outlets like RT and Sputnik. Meta has banned these outlets from the platforms it owns, including Facebook and Instagram. Tech companies have also cut advertising revenue outlets and stepped up efforts to label their accounts.
A message seeking comment from the Russian Embassy in the United States was not immediately returned.
A noticeable increase in pro-Russian propaganda regarding Ukraine began in the weeks and months before the invasion even began in February.
The accounts were tweeting about 2,000 times a week immediately after the invasion, resulting in more than a million likes, retweets and comments, according to Schliebs’ research.
That engagement plummeted after Twitter announced earlier this month that it would no longer promote more than 300 Russian accounts or include them in search results, a technical move known as a “demotion”. , designed to limit the scope of accounts. Yet despite Twitter’s action, accounts monitored by Schliebs still earn around half a million likes, retweets and comments a week.
Twitter and Facebook have added “Russian government organization” labels to many of these accounts to ensure users know the source of the information. have a label.
A Twitter spokeswoman said the company had already tagged 260,000 Tweets from Russian accounts since Feb. 28 and continued to add tags to accounts “on an ongoing basis.”
Schliebs compared tech companies’ response to the Russian invasion with their actions after the 2020 US election, the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Then-President Donald Trump was kicked off Twitter for inciting violence before the Jan. 6 riot. But the Russian diplomats — they’ve been spreading wild conspiracy theories and blaming Ukrainians for Russian atrocities — remain.
“I’m not defending him (Trump) in any way, but I don’t see the consistency of this policy,” he said.
Meta has implemented similar changes designed to label Russian diplomatic accounts and reduce their reach on its platforms.
Last month, the company also deleted a post by Russian diplomats suggesting its deadly airstrike on a children’s hospital in Mariupol was a hoax.
Schliebs said there was a danger that platforms like Facebook and Twitter would go after diplomatic accounts too much. On the one hand, it could deepen Russia’s antagonism toward US-based tech companies. (Facebook, for example, has been called an “extremist” organization.) But it could also force Russia and its supporters onto less transparent platforms like Telegram, where researchers and regulators can’t see what they’re saying. .
It’s a change that Russian diplomats are preparing for, as the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted last week.
“Meet our DiploFamily on @telegram,” he wrote.