Twitter accounts operated by authoritarian governments in Russia, China and Iran are benefiting from recent changes at the social media company, making it easier for them to attract new followers and broadcast propaganda and disinformation to a larger audience.
The platform is no longer labeling state-controlled media and propaganda agencies, and will no longer prohibit their content from being automatically promoted or recommended to users. Together, the two changes, both made in recent weeks, have supercharged the Kremlin’s ability to use the U.S.-based platform to spread lies and misleading claims about its invasion of Ukraine, U.S. politics and other topics.
Russian state media accounts are now earning 33% more views than they were just weeks ago, before the change was made, according to a report by Reset, a London-based non-profit that tracks authoritarian governments’ use of social media to spread propaganda. Reset’s findings were first reported by The Associated Press.
The increase works out to more than 125,000 additional views per post. Those posts included ones suggesting the CIA had something to do with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., that Ukraine’s leaders are embezzling foreign aid to the their country, and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was justified because the U.S. was running clandestine biowarfare labs in the country.
State media agencies operated by Iran and China have seen similar increases in engagement since Twitter quietly made the changes.
The about-face from the platform is the latest development since billionaire Elon Musk purchased Twitter last year. Since then, he’s ushered in a confusing new verification system and laid off much of the company’s staff, including those dedicated to fighting misinformation, allowed back neo-Nazis and others formerly suspended from the site, and ended the site’s policy prohibiting dangerous COVID-19 misinformation. Hate speech and disinformation have thrived.
Before the most recent change, Twitter affixed labels reading “Russian state-affiliated media” to let users know the origin of the content. It also throttled back the Kremlin’s online engagement by making the accounts ineligible for automatic promotion or recommendation — something it regularly does for ordinary accounts as a way to help them reach bigger audiences.
The labels quietly disappeared after National Public Radio and other outlets protested Musk’s plans to label their outlets as state affiliated media too. NPR then announced it would no longer use Twitter, saying the label was misleading, given NPR’s editorial independence, and would would damage its credibility.
Reset’s conclusions were confirmed by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, where researchers determined the changes were likely made by Twitter late last month. Many of the dozens of previously labeled accounts were steadily losing followers since Twitter began using the labels. But after the change, many accounts saw big jumps in followers.
RT Arabic, one of Russia’s most popular propaganda accounts on Twitter, had fallen to less than 5,230,000 followers on Jan. 1, but rebounded after the change was implemented, the DFRL found. It now has more than 5,240,000.
Before the change, users interested in seeking out Kremlin propaganda had to search specifically for the account or its content. Now, it can be recommended or promoted like any other content.
“Twitter users no longer must actively seek out state-sponsored content in order to see it on the platform; it can just be served to them,” the DFRL concluded.
Twitter did not respond to questions about the change or the reasons behind it. Musk has made past comments suggesting he sees little difference between state-funded propaganda agencies operated by authoritarian strongmen and independent news outlets in the west.
“All news sources are partially propaganda,” he tweeted last year, “some more than others.”
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