The Kremlin and its allies continue to use major U.S. social media platforms to spread war propaganda and disinformation to millions, a Grid review has found, despite the platforms’ vows to ban such content.
On YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, Grid found pro-invasion rhetoric, false war crimes claims against Ukrainians, and even fundraising campaigns for military equipment to aid the Russian invasion.
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“It’s not terribly surprising,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for reforming social media. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not outrageous.”
Things don’t appear to have gone as the giants planned. Grid found dozens of examples of content prohibited by the platforms’ terms of service or their own public statements of policy:
- On Facebook and YouTube, Russian-aligned militants crowdfunded for equipment and supplies.
- On YouTube, where Russian state media is expressly banned, Kremlin-controlled outlets continue to post content to channels they control.
- On Instagram, popular Russian pro-war hashtags and messages proliferate across hundreds of thousands of posts, despite prohibitions on posts threatening harm or encouraging violence.
Grid’s review was simple and did not rely on sophisticated tools or analytics. First, we identified Russians under international sanction, Russian state media outlets and common Russian-language hashtags expressing support for the Ukrainian invasion. Then, we performed simple searches for those names and terms across each platform.
Kremlin-watchers and propaganda experts are frustrated by how slow these U.S. internet behemoths have been to curtail propaganda from the Russian state and its allies, despite explicit promises to do so. “These companies have a misguided sense of their role in society,” said Wendy Via, co-founder and president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“Patriotic action” on YouTube
Grid found that more than 20 Russian state channels remain active on YouTube disseminating war propaganda.
Last week, Grid informed YouTube of 23 channels on its platform that appeared to belong to Russian state media that were continuing to post propaganda. By Tuesday, YouTube appeared to have removed five. The company did not respond to Grid’s inquiry with comment or explanation.
Ben Dubow, a digital propaganda expert and founder of the geopolitical analysis firm Omelas, said the importance of YouTube’s earlier removal of the larger Russian state media channels should not be overstated. “The remainders, from what we’re tracking, are much, much smaller and likely reflect lack of internal expertise to find those channels rather than anything intentional,” he said.
Facebook: “Beat the enemy even better”
“We cannot have these people who are pushing this disinformation, particularly about the invasion of Ukraine, reach users across the world,” she said. “There’s a faction of Americans who will adopt and spread the very propaganda that Russia is spreading.”
In another post, the group’s administrator relayed that the soldiers “would like to thank all the members of our group for sending them digital radio stations and lanterns, which not only give an opportunity to beat the enemy even better, but also help to avoid unnecessary losses!”
Meta appears to have removed access to the page following Grid’s inquiries to Facebook for this report. The company did not respond on the record to questions from Grid.
Instagram: “We Don’t Abandon Our Own”
Russian pro-war propaganda is easy to find on Instagram if one searches for common pro-war hashtags. For instance, a search for the hashtag #СвоихНеБросаем (“We Don’t Abandon Our Own”) returns more than 400,000 results, including several videos with thousands of views.
“The lack of systemic intervention on this kind of on these kinds of issues — it’s frustrating,” said Lehrich, of Accountable Tech. “They just seem to wait until there’s so much public pressure that they can’t not act.”
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