Do you ever get the vibe that there are a lot more pro-Russian or anti-Ukrainian views being aired now on social media? More than an inkling, you may be picking up on a problem that seems to be worsening: Moscow, as part of a global strategy, is actively seeking to undermine Western democracies.

The upsurge of Russian disinformation, a mere 150 days before the US presidential elections does not surprise Ivana Stradner, a Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Kyiv Post contributor, who says that Russia is engaged in a “war over perception” and is seeking to influence what people in the West think. In turn, Western leaders should be anticipating and preparing for Moscow to “increase their information warfare efforts against the West, especially around elections in the US, the EU, the UK.”

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Russia’s goal in these exercises is simple: “Russia wants to defeat the West,” something they can only hope to do if they first defeat Westerners “in our heads” as part of the “cognitive war” that Moscow is waging, says Stradner, which is why Russia has invested so heavily in information operations across Europe and the US.

Following America’s contentious 2016 elections, an upset that saw Donald Trump beat out Hillary Clinton, accusations were made that Russia had manipulated American voters, leading to multi-year investigations that saw federal investigators conclude that Russia had “meddled in all big social media.”

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The Mueller Report described Russia’s efforts in social media as having been “active measures” and “information warfare” that utilized social media campaigns “designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.”

Following weeks of intensive congressional hearings and public scrutiny, social media companies at the time universally promised to do better in challenging Russia’s abuse of their platforms to spread disinformation.

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In correspondences with Meta, the parent company of Facebook, a spokesman confirmed to Kyiv Post that the company is engaged in efforts to combat disinformation, sharing quarterly reports with Kyiv Post that highlighted Meta’s efforts to prevent Russia’s nefarious actions.

Like Meta, Twitter initially dove deep into reforming its policies and hunting rogue Russian disinformation operations. However, since 2022, when Elon Musk bought out Twitter, which he renamed X, the company has been backsliding on its promise to stand up to Russia.

The scourge of “malicious information has changed drastically since 2022, and it’s alarming that it is much more blatant now that Russia is receiving no pushback from X,” says Benjamin Stevens, a web intelligence and media-focused data scientist from Ameridigital Research.

Echoing this view, Ukraine’s top boss for combatting Russian disinformation, Ihor Solovei, who heads Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, told Kyiv Post that X used to have a separate team with whom his office cooperated “to root out Russian disinformation.” However, following Musk’s arrival, things have worsened as X’s team, formerly committed to fighting disinformation, “is gone.”

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In fact, shortly after coming to Twitter, Musk fired scores of employees, honing in on those who had been the backbone of combatting the malign foreign actors seeking to undermine free elections, leading to the situation becoming so bad that a Foreign Policy article last year referred to Twitter becoming, under Musk’s tutelage, “a sewer of disinformation.”

Today, “Russian security services are actively using the X network, primarily to influence Western audiences,” something they do through the use of manipulations, like bots, that “are directly controlled from Russia,” says Solovei.

Citing a recent example, Solovei says that the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) and the Center for Countering Disinformation (CCD) identified Moscow-backed disinformation groups and sent a request to X to block them. X, however, took no action.

Rosalie Li, of InfoEpi Lab, a research organization that studies information epidemiology, agrees that changes at Twitter over the past two years have made the platform “increasingly hospitable to information manipulation,” something that researchers “are less able than ever to detect and identify.”

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Aside from Musk having nullified the value of verified accounts by making them available to anyone who pays, Li cited Musk’s decision to reinstate the banned accounts of those who floated ideas, “such as Holocaust denial,” being allowed back to Twitter.

Li says that X has aggravated efforts to inform users of potentially false information by eliminating the labels on state-affiliated news sources “from countries with no free press, like China, Iran, and Russia.”

Examples of pro-Russian content springing up are numerous. Earlier this month, a former Ukrainian news anchor who had worked for a television station owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch with close personal connections to Vladimir Putin, began using X, in English, to strongly promote pro-Moscow and anti-Kyiv viewpoints in relation to the war. Within 10 days, the anchor had racked-up nearly 30,000 followers – something that experts found to be implausible to achieve by organic means.

Looking at the data surrounding that account, Ryan McBeth, an open-source intelligence analyst, using Cyabra social media threat detection tools, concluded that the pro-Russian account “is most likely being used as an ‘amplification’ account to boost the range and audience of Russian propaganda.”

Despite Russia’s attempts to influence American politics, American lawmakers remain befuddled as to what can be done. In a recent interview with Kyiv Post, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) acknowledged that intentional disinformation could be driving some false narratives, including about American aid for Ukraine, but cited respect for free speech as being an inhibitor to doing more to outlawing it.

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Ultimately, Western nations are not tackling Russia correctly, argues Stradner, who says that “while the west is trying to build deterrence in the information space by exposing Russian propaganda,” European and American leaders are not recognizing that, in regard to Putin, “the best deterrence is offense.” Or, to put it more bluntly, we must “put Moscow on defense or we are doomed to fail.”

So, are there brighter skies on the horizon?

Stevens is far from convinced.

“It is a darker time, as we now know there is real death behind this information war… It’s not 2018 anymore, authorities in NATO have to act,” the social media guru says.

Kyiv Post could not readily reach YouTube or Twitter, for comment.

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