Kremlin's reach grows on Musk's X, says an EU study

The report is the latest in a series of red flags, following warnings from the EU that X could face hefty fines under the DSA for its lapses.
Rizwan Choudhury
Twiiter and Elon Musk.
Twiiter and Elon Musk.

Source: Getty Images 

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has released a report this week that reveals how X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, has helped spread Russian misinformation about Ukraine. The report, which covers a year of research, shows that the platform’s policy changes have resulted in a sharp increase in the influence of Kremlin-friendly accounts across Europe.

The Washington Post reported that despite voluntary commitments from major social media firms, including Meta, to curb Russian disinformation, the misleading narratives continued to flourish. Notably, such uncontrolled dissemination would have violated the EU’s recently enacted Digital Services Act (DSA) had the law been in effect last year.

A rising tide of disinformation

The European Commission’s study revealed, "Over the course of 2022, the audience and reach of Kremlin-aligned social media accounts increased substantially all over Europe." It went on to indicate that this trend persisted into the first half of 2023, exacerbated by the slackening of safety standards on X.

The EU has notably been more aggressive in regulatory measures against state-backed disinformation compared to the United States. Effective August 25, the DSA now mandates large social media companies to evaluate the risk of false information and to subject their algorithms to auditing. This is in addition to European sanctions that led platforms like YouTube to ban Russian state media outlets, such as the once-popular RT.

Legal measures falling short

This report is the latest in a series of red flags, following warnings from EU Commissioner Thierry Breton that X could face hefty fines under the DSA for its lapses. The research was spearheaded by Reset, a nonprofit advocating for digital platform oversight. The group had to rely on publicly available data, as they couldn’t gain full access to internal company metrics—something the new EU law aims to change.

While X remains under the spotlight, it is not the only culprit. Platforms like Instagram, Telegram, and Meta-owned Facebook also received criticism. "In absolute numbers, pro-Kremlin accounts continue to reach the largest audiences on Meta's platforms," the Reset study stated.

Platforms not prepared for information war

The findings of the study suggest that existing legal frameworks and voluntary commitments are insufficient in tackling the full spectrum of Russia's information warfare. Coordinated actions on platforms like Telegram, disinformation campaigns using hate speech, and manipulation of algorithmic boosting were cited as concerning tactics.

Reset’s senior adviser, Felix Kartte, remarked that such activities "threaten national security and have the potential to influence European elections next year."

The Musk factor

The study emphasized the role of Elon Musk in shaping the trajectory of X. After taking ownership, Musk lifted mitigation measures on Kremlin-backed accounts, leading to a 36% growth in their online engagement. Musk also eased content rules and reduced enforcement staff, effectively abandoning the voluntary code of conduct aimed at combating disinformation.

In a move that raised eyebrows, X, under Musk’s direction, has removed state-affiliated media labels from RT and other Kremlin-controlled accounts while allowing them to pay for the platform’s blue-check verification program.

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