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Why Russia is losing the information war against Ukraine

MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy Director Sinan Aral joins Yahoo Finance Live to talk about how vital social media platforms have been to both Russian and Ukrainian causes, filtering the legitimacy of information online, and international responses to the conflict.

Transcripción del video

- All right, well, social media certainly open the doors for information to spread in seconds, whether it's accurate or not. In the middle of the Russia-Ukraine war, the information war is also raging. For more on this, I'm joined by Sinan Aral, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy director. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Now, as you look at these two countries, when you think about the difference in the size of their budgets, state media, the technical manpower on social media between Russia and Ukraine, how are President Zelenskyy and Ukraine, as you say, winning this information war? And what strategies are being used by both sides?

SINAN ARAL: Well, historically, Russia expects to win these information wars when it enters the geopolitical sphere. 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Crimea, it dominated this information space, especially in Crimea. It had a very complex strategy that proved very effective.

But this time around, they're losing the information war. And I think there are several reasons for that. I think president Zelenskyy has been incredibly effective with his selfies, with his use of Telegram to speak to the Russian people through the encrypted platform, but also just in terms of the content of his narrative, which is very compelling and is winning the hearts and minds of the international community, those in Ukraine, and even some in Russia, who are protesting.

In addition, the international community is unified. And finally, the platforms are taking much more proactive action than they used to in 2014 and 2018.

- So then how do you measure social media manipulation? How is that gauged, as so much information is coming out at the same time?

SINAN ARAL: Well, during the fog of war, it's extremely difficult. In fact, I would think that it is nearly impossible to do it in real time because things have to be fact-checked one by one. So to do it at the scale of social media during the fog of war is very hard. That's what makes these situations particularly dangerous when it comes to information spreading in real time.

However, the way we do it when we have some time to do it and we've collected a lot of data, is to compile all of the information spreading, for example, over a platform like Twitter, which is very public, and then also over Facebook and other types of platforms, and then to piece together what we call cascades of information, diffusing over this network, and to measure mathematically how fast the information is moving, how many people are seeing it, what type of network structure it's diffusing over.

All of this gives us a sense for how broad the reach is, how deep the reach is, how quickly the information is reaching. And then we rely on fact-checkers for the labeling of whether it is valid, true, false, or what we call mixed, which is partially true and partially false, which becomes incredibly important in these types of scenarios.

- And so you have a couple of things going on. As you mentioned, you talked about the optics, as you see Zelenskyy sort of walking through the streets, doing the selfies. And that contrasts with President Putin at this large desk, far away from the war.

How does the framing of this kind of narrative in the middle of the war, how does that impact the kind of support that these countries get from companies and other countries, as they're on the outside, looking in?

SINAN ARAL: Well, it's absolutely essential. So the three main audiences here are Ukrainian citizens, Russian citizens, and the international community. As you can tell from the response, we've seen an unprecedented international response, unprecedented sanctions from the West. We've seen the EU commit troops for the first time in its history. We've seen Germany do an about face on Nord Stream 2 and as well an about face on their long-standing policy of not sending arms into military conflicts outside of its borders.

And so the international response has been swift and strong. For instance, Swift, disconnecting many Russian banks from the Swift financial communication system. These are all extremely unprecedented, unified, and dramatic steps by the international community.

In Ukraine, what you see is people staying and fighting. You see, through social media, mobilization and also social proof that each person who's fighting is not alone, that they're unified, and that there are others fighting with them.

And then in Russia, you see unprecedented protests. Nearly 10,000 people have been arrested in Russia for protesting, which means many, many more are protesting, which is a dangerous business in Russia. So on these three fronts, the citizenry of Russia, the citizens of Ukraine, and as well the international community, the narrative seems to be working in terms of mobilizing Ukrainians to fight, Russians to protest, and the international community to respond.

- And as you mentioned, a different situation than what we saw in Crimea and with the war in Georgia. Now, about that, you said that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Google what reactionary when it came to that information war. But now it seems to be a different case.

You have companies like Reddit using bans. Others are sort of using warnings and fact-checking. How much has this landscape changed in how social media giants react and monitor these posts as well as things like bots also coming into the mix?

SINAN ARAL: Absolutely. We studied this in Crimea in 2014. And what we found was that Russia had a two-pronged strategy. They would first suppress Ukrainian voices with automated fraud and abuse reports, saying that their posts had porn or hate speech. And Facebook would take these posts down and then ban their authors. And then Russia would spread misinformation. And Facebook couldn't keep up.

This time around, Facebook has spun up a special operations center. It's staffed with native Russian and Ukrainian speakers. It monitors misinformation posted about the war. They're adding warning labels to any war-related images that its software detects are more than a year old, which obviously can't be about this war.

They've restricted access to content from state-affiliated Russian media sources like "RT" and "Sputnik." YouTube is restricting that kind of access as well. They're removing those channels from recommendations, limiting the reach of that content across the platform.

Twitter has temporarily banned all ads in Ukraine and Russia. They're putting tweets with links to Russian state-affiliated media on label. And they're down-ranking this content and their algorithmic timeline. So they are much more proactive than they were, than we saw them be in Crimea and much more so than we've seen in recent times.