Russia-Themed Misinformation Spreads via Facebook, Telegram

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Misinformation focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine flooded social media conversations Thursday, from pro-Kremlin conspiracies spreading across Telegram to videos described as live attacks proliferating on Facebook’s gaming platform.

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The top videos on Facebook Gaming were described as footage of live attacks on Ukraine by Russia, some complete with red “breaking news” banners. But the clips were actually gameplay from the military-themed video game Arma 3. Meanwhile, more than 100 channels on the messaging app Telegram -- totalling hundreds of thousands of followers -- were filled with posts promoting talking points from Russian President Vladimir Putin as his forces invaded Ukraine.

The Facebook videos, watched by more than 110,000 concurrent viewers and shared more than 25,000 times, were pulled down after Bloomberg News approached Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc. for comment.

Meta has long struggled to moderate misleading or fake news, including stories about elections and Covid-19. Experts say it is more challenging to moderate video than text -- particularly live video, as it is difficult for artificial intelligence to analyze as it plays.

“In response to the unfolding military conflict in Ukraine, we have established a Special Operations Center to respond in real time,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s head of security policy, said on Twitter, adding that the center will be staffed with native speakers.

Launched in 2018, Facebook Gaming is Meta’s answer to Twitch, Inc.’s popular game livestreaming service. On Thursday, the service was overrun by more than 90 Arma 3 videos with titles referencing the crisis in Ukraine -- some of which were live for as long as eight hours.

Earlier that day, all five of Facebook Gaming’s most-viewed videos on the platform depicted a video-game rendition of military assault in Ukraine. Some of the videos’ titles, many of which were in Arabic, read, “Russia fighter jets on Ukraine” and “Live scenes of the Russian bombing of Ukraine.”

The top-viewed livestream was in fact a prerecorded video of a plane shelling a shoreline in the game Arma 3. Fifty-two thousand live viewers tuned in. In the accompanying chatroom, the channel owner, who goes by Naruto, repeatedly asked the viewers to subscribe.

Under an Arabic Arma 3 video with a “breaking news” label, the creator commented that the livestream was “from the borders of Ukraine” and documented by a reporter.

“Meta has enough experience now that it should be anticipating this stuff, especially in crisis scenarios like this,” said Evelyn Douek at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

Other user-generated content sites saw similar problems.

While Telegram has emerged as a major source of real-time news about the Russian invasion, including dispatches from Ukrainian government officials, it’s also drawn criticism for misinformation. Posts flagged to Bloomberg News on Thursday falsely reported that the CIA has spent years training pro-Nazi groups in terrorism practices in Ukraine.

Chatter in another channel -- with nearly 400,000 subscribers -- said without evidence that Ukrainian national police had provided intelligence to Russian military forces. Anonymous users and suspected bots also promoted fabricated news encouraging Ukrainian military personnel to flee the country. The service has hundreds of millions of daily users.

One message encouraged recipients not to oppose possible Russian troop movements in eastern Ukraine, saying, “You have some time to save your life and leave,” according to a translation to English. Text messages sent by unknown parties also sought to amplify awareness about inauthentic protests, offering money to people willing to set cars on fire and break windows.

“If you open the comments, you will see a lot of terrible content like dead bodies and torture and some atrocities,” said Liubov Tsybulska, founder of Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security. “Telegram just doesn’t regulate this, and it’s very dangerous.”

In a statement, the company said it had observed an uptick in messaging from Ukraine and Russia as the conflict intensified.

“We are seeing an increase in official messages from both sides of the conflict, as both Russian and Ukrainian representatives and media turn to Telegram to keep their citizens informed,” said Telegram spokesperson Remi Vaughn. “We are evaluating ways to ensure our platform is not used as a military tool and remains a neutral space.”

(Updates with details on Telegram activity starting in first paragraph.)

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