Sunday

5th Feb 2023

Russian activist warns on 'fake news' as EU backs action

  • Online platforms like Facebook and Google have been accused of making only token efforts to tackle disinformation (Photo: Eduardo Woo)

Russian internet activist and journalist Lyudmila Savchuk spent two and half months undercover in a four-storey 'troll factory' in St Petersburg, Russia.

Her job was simple. Tasked to distort the truth and toe the pro-Putin government line, she helped sway public opinion on the internet.

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"I worked in the Russian-language department targeting the national market," she told EUobserver, earlier this week.

The top floor of the building was reserved for interfering into foreign elections, she said. Another worked on content creation such as memes, in what she described as propaganda designed to attack the European Union.

"There was an entire department that was developing memes, including memes targeting the European Union," she said.

Staff turnover was rapid. Most left after two months with starting salaries hovering between €430 and €530 per month. The money, she says, came from the Russian taxpayer, via the Russian government.

Savchuk left the troll factory in 2015, exposing it after leaking documents and video to a Russian news outlet, but worries that people are not taking the issue seriously.

"There are many more buildings like this, there is an army of trolls working from home and so the extent of this is much bigger than generally assumed," she said.

Earlier this week, Twitter released an archive of over 10 million tweets, most of them linked to that St Petersburg troll factory, also known as Internet Research Agency.

The Russian operation was designed to interfere in the US presidential election, polarising communities in the US in a broader effort to inflame both sides.

The EU is worried. It notes that online manipulation and disinformation has been used in at least 18 countries during elections in recent years.

Summit endorsement

With European elections looming next May, EU heads of state and government on Thursday (18 October) at an EU summit in Brussels have endorsed European Commission plans to curb the "unlawful data manipulation and fighting disinformation campaigns."

They want the commission to present an action plan for a coordinated EU response in December.

A commission code of conduct, drafted in September, seeks to increase transparency in political advertising and take down fake accounts, among other voluntary measures.

Mariya Gabriel, the EU digital commissioner, has not ruled out regulation should the industry fail to deliver. Online platforms have since handed over their own plans to Gabriel on how to execute the commission's code of conduct.

Elves against trolls

But EU regulation and lawmaking takes time. Too much time for some.

Ricken Patel who heads Avaaz, a global civic organisation with the world's largest online activist community, is seeking urgent action.

He describes disinformation as one the greatest threats to democracy and one that is gathering rapid pace ahead of the EU elections next May.

"We are being conned and gamed and played by the actors of least integrity who are willing to abuse the new information architecture for personal gain," he said.

Avaaz has set up a team of what it calls 'elves' to confront 'trolls'. The Avaaz elves monitor Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to spot, investigate and report fake news stories.

They helped expose fake news pushed by people supporting Brazil's far-right frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro.

Patel accuses online platforms like Facebook and Google of making only token measures to tackle disinformation, blaming the industry for giving neo-Nazis and the far-right a free platform to spread lies.

Part of the solution, he says, is getting the industry to tweak their algorithms.

"It is a toxic algorithm right now, it has been written solely to maximise the profit," he says.

He is demanding national governments secure a better line of defence and wants platforms to delete fake accounts and have them issue corrections to everyone who has shared a false post.

"Facebook doesn't want to do that, they have a song and dance on why correction doesn't work," he said, noting academic studies that say it can work.

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