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6 June, 2019  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

Virtual force

The role of social networks in the events of 2014 and nowadays

A lot has already been written about the fact that the Russian government uses social networks to interfere in the elections of other states and provoke political conflicts. Journalists from different countries made a number of elaborate investigations of this subject and were able to establish that Yevgeny Prigozhin, manager of a whole troll factory, is the person from Putin coterie, who is responsible for working with social networks. But if the existence of Russian Internet trolls is no longer a secret, then the question of what to do with them and how to resist them is still open.

With the development of social networks, mankind has faced such challenges that were not in our history before. One of them is an avalanche-like, viral dissemination of information. And often far from being useful. The spread of terrible rumors, which lead to outbreaks of violence, panic, bashing, of course, has been a frequent occurrence for long. But before the advent of Facebook and smartphones, such outbursts were usually on local scale and occurred within a single city or village. Now, technical progress allows information to quickly spread over vast territories and cover millions of people. This feature has made the social networks a formidable weapon, sometimes rather destructive than a machine gun or a cannon. Indeed, at the beginning of the XXI century, terrible rumors no longer appear spontaneously, but purposefully invented by specially trained people.

Ukraine felt first-hand all the power of this weapon in 2014, when Russia had put forth all its energy to use social networks for inciting hostility within our country, as well as for mobilizing those who want to kill Ukrainians in the Russian Federation as well. Then many people, not only in Ukraine, but also abroad, realized that social networks are not just innocent entertainment, and that information is biased, that a properly spread fake information can provoke violence, kill and maim.

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The Kremlin willingly and regularly uses fakes in the information war against its enemies in the West and in the neighboring countries. All means are used to launch the necessary messages: both the official media with huge budgets like RT, and anonymous communities in social networks. At the same time, work in social networks has one big advantage over traditional media. There are practically no restrictions. Unlike the media that are forced to comply with certain limits and rules of decency, on Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte with the help of bots you can spread any impudent lies and not worry about its plausibility. Knowing the principle of social network algorithms functioning and having the necessary financial and human resources at disposal, it is possible to convey practically any information to millions of people.

Unlike the media, where each story has specific authors or is voiced by a particular TV presenter who is responsible for its credibility with his or her reputation and authority, fakes from social networks often do not have an author or can be spread from the same fake accounts. After the information is reposted multiple times from one group to another, it is already extremely difficult to find the source. In addition, most people will never be engaged in such a search.

Everyone remembers well the sensational story about the “crucified boy” in Sloviansk. The deceitful plot of the Russian “Channel One” (“Pervyi Kanal”) gained wide popularity and became a meme exactly because it was released on the main federal television channel of the Russian Federation. But there was no uniqueness in that story for social networks. During 2014, hundreds of similar stories were published there, most of which are long-forgotten. Horrible stories about burned hospitals with wounded militiamen, blown up churches, and executed civilians then roamed from group to group. The plot about the “concentration camp for Russian-speaking residents of Donbas”, which Ukraine allegedly built in Zhdanivka, became a real hit. Hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of people, read these stories and believed them, reposted, and sent each other in instant messengers.

The mechanism of fake information dissemination is somewhat different depending on the specifics of a particular social network, but on the whole it is simple. The main condition is mass reposting. It is facilitated by bots, thousands of fake accounts that spread the needed information in the comments or post it in popular communities. To achieve such a massive participation is not difficult in case you have money. In order for people to catch the informational virus; the “news” must be appropriately adapted to the consciousness of the average person: have a glaring headline, respond to common fears and prejudices. Truthfulness is completely irrelevant. It is important that the information does not reflect reality, but coincides with the expectations of the man in the street. Insane and absurd fakes were easily taken for granted and went to the people just because they exactly corresponded to people's ideas about what was happening. Those who expected that Ukrainian soldiers would kill and rape the residents of Donbas believed any message on this topic. Even if there was no evidence, but anonymous comments on the internet.

This principle has also proved its effectiveness while working with citizens of other states. Fears and prejudices exist everywhere; the main thing is to properly exploit them. For example, in EU countries, Russian trolls often disperse the necessary messages about migrants, sexual minorities and other similar topics to cause heated debates and schisms in society. The materials published in the Western media proved that in the EU and the US, accounts connected with Russia had pursued the same goals as in Ukraine: rousing enmity and hatred, strengthening destructive, anti-systemic sentiments, popularizing marginal political forces. After that, Twitter and Facebook began to delete pages detected in attempts to influence the election. For several years, tens of thousands of such accounts have been deleted. But still it is impossible to call this fight effective.

If the management of American social networks is still trying to fight the invasion of Russian bots, it is quite opposite with that of Russian. Popular among Ukrainian users, networks Odnoklassniki and VKontakte have become a haven for all those who are blocked on Facebook or Twitter for inciting hostility and aggression. In 2014, anti-Ukrainian communities were actively created and promoted in these social networks, provoking hatred and spreading fake news. The only possible way out for the Ukrainian authorities in this situation was to block the mentioned social networks on the territory of Ukraine, but such measures only reduced the attendance of the mentioned resources, but could not fully restrict access to them.

What to do in this situation is not very clear. Limiting the flow of information in the modern world is becoming increasingly difficult. Only the methods of  North Korea can reliably do this; the Internet is simply forbidden there. When access to the network is available, it is not difficult to bypass any blockages using special programs.

The fight against propaganda accounts on Facebook and Twitter, too, has not yet yielded proper results. Deleted bots are being replaced by new ones. In addition, propagandists are also improving and trying to act in a rather sophisticated way. How to determine where the line between interference in elections and freedom of speech lies? How to prevent a person from expressing his opinion online if it does not formally violate the laws? In Europe, these issues remain acute and controversial.

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Whether someone likes it or not, the realities of the 21st century are such that it becomes more and more difficult to impose any censorship and it shows less and less efficiency. Even in authoritarian Russia, where the government has almost unlimited possibilities and does not spare money for its own security, they have failed to block the Telegram messenger. What can we say about free and democratic countries, where the principle of freedom of speech is important for society? Given these realities, only one thing remains. It must be admitted that competition in the information space cannot be avoided and the only way to struggle against the spread of hostile and fake information is to give people an alternative and inform them about the real state of affairs. And most importantly, not to forget to ensure the rule of law in real life. It is important to remember that the decisive role in stirring up bloodshed in the East of Ukraine was not played by the sock puppets in social networks, but by the concrete actions of quite real people which the Ukrainian law enforcers failed to stop in time.

 

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