Musk’s X now a cozy home for Russian propaganda, EU says

X, formerly Twitter, has allowed Russian propaganda to reach more users since Elon Musk relaxed the platform’s safety standards, the European Commission said in a new study.

To be fair, the report found that Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram have also failed to stop Russian disinformation. But these platforms haven’t been as lax as the site previously known as Twitter.

“Over the course of 2022, the audience and reach of Kremlin-aligned social media accounts increased substantially all over Europe,” the study found.

“Preliminary analysis suggests that the reach and influence of Kremlin-backed accounts has grown further in the first half of 2023, driven in particular by the dismantling of Twitter’s safety standards.”

The research was conducted by nonprofit analysis group Reset, which tracks authoritarian governments’ use of social media. It mostly analyzed what was going on in 2022.

But it said that “the reach of pro-Kremlin accounts increased between January and May of 2023, with average engagement rising by 22 percent across online platforms.”

This sort of increase, according to the study authors, was largely driven by Twitter, where engagement grew by 36% after Musk “decided to lift mitigation measures on Kremlin-backed accounts.”

According to the report, Russian propagandists, who are gladly paying for X’s premium program, coordinate their actions online, urging simultaneous posts to manipulate the algorithms that boost popular content. They also regularly file mass claims that pro-Ukraine accounts were violating platform rules to get them suspended.

Researchers have analyzed content posted by more than 2,200 “Kremlin-backed and Kremlin-aligned” accounts on the most popular social media platforms.

Musk has indeed removed labels reading “Russia state-affiliated media” that had previously been affixed to certain accounts. The latter are now also eligible for automatic promotion or recommendation, and can reach bigger audiences.

Simply put, before the changes – Musk also laid off much of the staff dedicated to fighting misinformation – users interested in Kremlin propaganda had to search for it specifically. Now, the content can be recommended or promoted to the default “For You” tab.

“Many state-affiliated media outlets, particularly in authoritarian countries, exist to exert influence domestically and interfere abroad – including through coordinated disinformation campaigns during democratic elections,” Miah Hammond-Errey, director of the Emerging Technology Program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, wrote in Foreign Policy recently.

“Without state media labels, these propaganda outlets with a clear mandate to spread disinformation operate without notification to users that the information is likely biased.”

X has not responded to multiple requests for comment from media organizations. But Musk has previously suggested he saw little difference between state-funded agencies operated by non-democracies and editorially independent news outlets in the West.

In April 2023, X even branded the BBC, Britain’s national broadcaster, as “government funded,” even though it is predominantly funded by individual households via a license fee and operates through a Royal Charter which states that the organization “must be independent.”

It’s rather ironic that allowing disinformation and hate speech to spread without limits would have violated the Digital Services Act, the EU’s social media law. But it only went into effect for the biggest social media firms on August 25th.

The bill requires companies to assess the risk of false information, stop the worst from being boosted by algorithms, and subject their performance to auditing.

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