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Griffin on Tech: With war comes a new wave of disinformation

Peter Griffin, Editor. 08 April 2022, 11:04 am

Social media giant Meta said this week that disinformation related to the war in Ukraine continues to surge on its Facebook platform.

Its quarterly Adversarial Threat Report outlines a host of operations Facebook has mounted to try and disrupt efforts to spin the facts of the war.

But it gets more insidious than the usual disinformation campaigns spread by fake accounts, which Facebook's algorithms have become much better at detecting. A hacking group affiliated with Belarus has been attempting to break into the social media accounts of Ukrainian military personnel. Facebook said that typically, the soldiers' email accounts are compromised through a phishing attack, which can glean enough information to gain access to the user's Facebook or Instagram account.

"In a handful of cases, they posted videos calling on the Army to surrender as if these posts were coming from the legitimate account owners. We blocked these videos from being shared," the report said. 

Elsewhere, Facebook said it has disrupted a disinformation campaign linked to the Belarusian KGB, which posted that Ukrainian troops were surrendering in their droves. Facebook pulled the plug on the account the same day.

Screenshot 2022-04-08 at 8.44.53 AM.png

Countries targeted by Ghostwriter, the Belarus-backed group spreading disinformation 

Google revealed last week that Gmail accounts were being used by Russian hackers to try and penetrate the networks of NATO, President Putin's nemesis and the supplier of arms to the Ukrainian military.

Some Western social media platforms have pulled out of Russia or have been blocked from operating in the country. But state-directed campaigns are being waged in the information war all over the world.

Weaponising Facebook

Facebook has done its best to try and show it is being proactive in weeding out disinformation related to the war. But the reality is that its systems are still unequipped to deal with the conspiracy theories and fake narratives that are being generated to sow confusion and fear. 

In March, a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Facebook had failed miserably in staunching disinformation on its platform that suggested the US was funding the use of bioweapons in Ukraine. 

Facebook failed to label 80% of posts spreading the conspiracy theory, according to the CCDH.

"If our researchers can identify false information about Ukraine openly circulating on its platform, it is within Meta's capability to do the same," the CCDH's chief executive Imran Ahmed, told the Guardian

"But we found that in the vast majority of cases, conspiracy theories are given a free pass."

Meta disputes the research.

"This is a bogus report that uses a flawed methodology to make it seem like we aren't applying fact-checking labels when in fact we are. They used a small, cherry-picked sample of news articles and ignored any post that didn't include links to them, misrepresenting the scale and scope of our efforts," Meta said in a statement.

"In fact, we have the most robust system for fact-checking false claims of any platform and our fact-checking partners have debunked dozens of claims about the Ukrainian bioweapons hoax in several languages including Ukrainian, Russian, and English," it added.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released another grim report this week on the prospects of catastrophic climate change, it became obvious that climate disinformation is also rife. 

A study by Global Witness found Facebook still facilitates misinformation campaigns that manipulate the facts about climate science and claim that man-made global warming is a hoax. It's clear that the voluntary approach to dealing with bad behaviour on social media platforms isn't working.

Accountability required

The answer may lie in Europe's plans to later this year to introduce another major piece of internet regulation, the Digital Services Act (DSA), which would require accountability mechanisms of social media platforms to assess and mitigate risks to users. Coming hot on the heels of the hard-hitting Digital Markets Act which is associated with massive fines for non-compliance by Big Tech companies, the DSA could finally provide the incentive for Facebook and its rivals to properly resource efforts to counter misinformation.

Governments have a direct role to play too in countering dis and misinformation. In last week's Australian Federal Budget, the Government committed A$9.9 billion to cybersecurity over the next decade. It was a flagship item in the Budget and recognises the escalation in online threats to Australia in the form of cyber-attacks and campaigns to undermine the nation's interests. 

As I wrote in BusinessDesk this week, our efforts are paltry in comparison. 

We need to get serious about investing in cybersecurity at a national level, including building up our capability to go after offshore actors targeting our businesses, institutions and democracy. 

On a happier note, my favourite band Pink Floyd has reformed briefly to release a new song as a gesture of solidarity with the Ukrainians. If you love David Gilmour's soaring guitar solos, listening to Hey, Hey, Rise Up will be the perfect start to your weekend...


Comments

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Ron Segal 08 April 2022, 12:18 pm

As a general freedom of speech principle people should be allowed to form their own critical opinions on what is or isn't misinformation without some censor deciding that for them. Indeed 'misinformation' is a term that is being increasingly used to describe viewpoints contrary to the status quo or widely accepted stance on matters, forgetting that the earth was flat until it wasn't.


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