As European powers rallied behind Ukraine this week, Russia’s supposedly formidable social media operation seemed quiet.
Russia’s troll farms once appeared capable of shaking a US presidential election. But now, Ukraine’s cause was so popular — with assists from Twitter and TikTok — that even neutral Switzerland was coming to its aid. You’d think Russia, given the hype, would deliver a strong counterpunch. But so far nothing’s landed.
That Russia is losing the information war so badly — despite its best efforts — indicates that social media’s power to influence world affairs may not be what many imagined. To convince people to follow a cause, you must tap into some reality they’re experiencing on the ground. And no matter how skilled the Kremlin’s social media operatives are, they can’t convince people to see something that’s not there. Ukraine is winning support in this war because Russia is violating its sovereignty. There’s nothing the trolls can do to convince people otherwise.
“People click and engage and respond to content they see for a reason,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former head of elections. “It usually taps into something that they’re feeling in real life.”
The Root of the Problem
In recent years, many of us have developed a form of social media determinism, believing that what happens online is responsible for society’s good and evil.
While social media does influence our lives, sometimes in horrible ways (see: Myanmar), the problems that emerge on these platforms are almost always manifestations of the physical world’s ills. It’s easier for us to talk about ways to fix Facebook than our root problems, so we hear a lot about Facebook. But society’s core issues will always be more important.
Faith in institutions, for instance, continues to drop, and people are seeking alternatives. As health, news, financial, government and religious pillars struggle to regain credibility after faltering during COVID, many are finding new sources of information, investment and care.
Focusing on social media content moderation may help limit the consequence — the spread of bad information — but it will only paper over the problems until we look deeper.
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Lack of Russian Support
War, of course, is different than elections, where small numbers of votes can change an outcome. In democracies, social media manipulation can be damaging, and the platforms must watch for it vigilantly. But political parties that obsess over social media policy as a substitute for introspection miss the plot.
Only 8% of Russians wanted the country to invade Ukraine, despite state control of their media. That’s interesting considering how quickly the US and Europe moved to boot the Kremlin-sponsored RT from their airwaves. The move will likely have less impact than its advocates imagine — though it’s good RT is gone — because RT or not, no propaganda campaign can conceal what’s happening in Ukraine right now.
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Alex Kantrowitz is founder and reporter at Big Technology, author of “Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever,” an on-air contributor at CNBC and former senior technology reporter at BuzzFeed News.