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Social media’s latest test: policing misinformation about Russia’s Ukraine invasion

February 25, 2022, 6:59 PM UTC

In the early years of Vladimir Putin’s reign over Russia, the state-controlled energy conglomerate Gazprom launched a seismic takeover of NTV, the federation’s last remaining large, independent television network.

Twenty-one years later, NTV serves as a popular source of state propaganda, broadcasting on Russian television and a comfy Internet home: YouTube.

As Putin launched a widely condemned invasion of Ukraine, pushing false narratives as justification for his attempted takeover, NTV continues to stream uninterrupted on its YouTube page to 15 million subscribers. The network, also referred to as HTB, quickly racks up hundreds of thousands of views on Ukraine-related dispatches. One video posted late Thursday morning already boasts 2.2 million views.

As the fog of war recedes and legislators in the U.S. and European Union return to negotiations over social media laws, the sector’s response to the Ukrainian invasion figures to come back under the spotlight. If policymakers analyzing the industry’s reaction feel social media giants once again fell short on their promises to police harmful content, momentum behind costly new regulations, such as heightened content monitoring requirements and algorithm disclosures, could gather.

So far, lawmakers haven’t taken aim too much at social media companies, focusing primarily on the immediate geopolitical crisis at hand. But as Bloomberg and Politico reported Thursday, a pressure campaign could soon mount against platforms allowing the proliferation of Putin propaganda.

“The conflict in Ukraine is fast becoming a proving ground over pledges these firms have made to clamp down on disinformation, especially given their insistence they now have a playbook that works,” Politico reported. “But plenty of disinformation is still getting through.”

To their modest credit, several social media outfits have launched efforts to curtail misinformation spreading on their platforms.

Facebook parent Meta announced a “special operations center” staffed by “experts and native speakers” to monitor content—though the company didn’t elaborate on their number or background. Twitter is suspending accounts (sometimes mistakenly) that violate the company’s policies on fake and manipulated media. Google-owned YouTube has blocked channels run by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Still, the lack of comprehensive action by YouTube and other social media giants to widely attack Russian propaganda will prompt questions about their enforcement of disinformation policies. 

While YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter moved aggressively to tag false claims about election fraud and de-platform former president Donald Trump, few such actions have been taken against the vast network of Russian cheerleaders in the early days of this predicament.

“Some of the things they’ve done [in the past] like labeling, or some of the ‘think-before-you-share’ type interventions, have not been applied to this crisis in particular,” Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center specializing in disinformation and democracy, told Axios.

Reasonable people can debate the wisdom and feasibility of policing mass amounts of online content, particularly in the context of a complex international emergency. 

But American and, in particular, European lawmakers, have been clear: they expect better from the world’s largest social media companies on that front. So far, it doesn’t look like YouTube and its peers are consistently meeting the moment.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Hitting ‘em in the pocketbook. Sanctions levied Thursday by President Joe Biden’s administration against Russia took aim at the federation’s ability to import many tech-related products, including semiconductors, computers, and aviation parts, The New York Times reported. The sanctions limit the ability of American companies, as well as foreign manufacturers reliant on U.S. equipment and technologies, to sell goods primarily used by the Russian government apparatus. Consumer electronics, such as smartphones and kitchen appliances, were largely exempted from the sanctions.

DOJ on the attack. The Justice Department moved Thursday to block UnitedHealth Group’s $13 billion acquisition of Change Healthcare, a leading financial and clinical software provider for the industry, The Wall Street Journal reported. Federal prosecutors suing to stop the purchase argued that the deal would unlawfully cut competition in a key corner of the health care insurance industry, giving UnitedHealth Group too much access to claim data. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission leaders have stepped up enforcement of antitrust laws during President Joe Biden’s tenure, taking particular aim at the tech and health care sectors.

Who needs Twitter? Shares of Block rallied Friday after the digital payments company, formerly known as Square, beat analysts’ profit and revenue estimates in the fourth quarter, Reuters reported. The company, run by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, reported a 47% increase in year-over-year gross profit, reaching $1.18 billion. Block shares were up 24% in mid-day trading Friday. 

Standing up to the SEC. Tesla CEO Elon Musk refuted allegations Thursday that his brother engaged in insider trading before selling about $100 million in shares of the automaker, The Financial Times reported. Musk’s statement followed a Wall Street Journal report that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether Kimbal Musk knew before the selloff that his brother would poll Twitter users the next day about whether to sell 10% of his stake in the company. Tesla’s stock fell after the poll, which was posted one day after Kimbal Musk offloaded 88.500 shares.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

A minor chip in the armor? American semiconductor sanctions against Russia sound serious, but both sides likely will feel minimal pain from the move, as Fortune’s Eamon Barrett reported. The punishment, which globally bans exports of semiconductors that are manufactured in the U.S. or use American-made technology, carries modest weight in a country that only makes for 0.1% of global chip purchases despite accounting for 1.7% of the global GDP. Russia also can look to friendlier partners for chips in the meantime, though the quality of those products remains lacking.

From the article:

Russia purchases roughly 70% of its chip supplies from China, which will likely ignore Biden’s embargo. But China can produce only relatively low-end chipsets, which are good for automobiles and home appliances but won’t be smart enough to guide Russian missiles.

Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of neon gas and palladium, which are both vital components in chip manufacturing. Some analysts fear Russia could leverage its position in the market to retaliate against the U.S. chip sanctions.

But many chipmakers began to diversify neon sourcing after Russia invaded Ukraine last time, in 2014, causing a 600% spike in neon pricing. Now the chipmakers are better prepared to switch suppliers.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

5 billionaires who publicly hated crypto then changed their minds, by Mahnoor Khan

Anti-Putin punk activists PussyRiot are part of a DAO selling NFTs to raise crypto donations for Ukraine, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

Sotheby’s canceled a $30 million NFTs auction at the last minute and it’s not clear if it’s a ‘rug pull’ or nobody wanted to buy them, by Sophie Mellor

Global stocks rebound as Kyiv burns, by Bernhard Warner

The next generation of brain-computing interfaces could be supercharged by artificial intelligence, by Jonathan Vanian

How a ‘World of Warcraft’ attack led a 21-year-old Russian crypto prodigy to coin Ethereum, by Mahnoor Khan

Elon Musk and Tesla were denied a court hearing on their claims that the SEC is harassing them, by Bob Van Voris and Bloomberg

BEFORE YOU GO

Famous last words. We spend plenty of time ragging on the ills of social media, as illustrated above. But sometimes, it offers a poignant window into heroism. You’ve probably seen the video by now, but if you haven’t, the defiant, expletive-punctuated final moments of 13 Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island are a testament to courage. (A Ukrainian news outlet published the footage and audio, prompting some concerns about its authenticity, though videos posted on social media offer additional validation.) While there’s plenty of fake and fabricated content circulating, our ability to monitor an international crisis in real time remains a wonder.

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