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A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Social media is a key battleground in the Russia-Ukraine standoff

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Welcome to The Technology 202! I did not watch the Super Bowl, but I'd welcome notes about your favorite commercials: cristiano.lima@washpost.com.

Below: What Sen. Ben Ray Luján's return plans mean for the FTC and FCC, and Facebook removes some groups linked to protests in Canada.

Social media is a key battleground in the Russia-Ukraine standoff

As the military standoff between Russia and the West intensifies along Ukraine’s borders, a separate clash is unfolding on social media, where researchers say pro-Russian actors are flooding sites with messages portraying Western forces as aggressors. 

The approach marks a contrast to Russia’s messaging during its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, when networks of bots and spam accounts focused on denying a military buildup. Now, Russian officials and state-run media are largely leading influence campaigns themselves, researchers said. 

These influence operations are designed to “deflect on the intent of the military buildup around Ukraine, and preemptively justify a military offensive,” Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told me. 

The trend highlights how Russia’s messaging and tactics online have shifted as platforms have cracked down on more overt disinformation campaigns, and as the prevalence of social media has made it harder to mask the realities on the ground.

In 2014, the Kremlin deployed an army of trolls and fake accounts on social media to push disinformation and shape perception about the annexation of Crimea. But after facing intense scrutiny about Russian interference online during the 2016 U.S. elections, tech companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter cracked down on those tactics. 

Now, researchers say, Russian influence campaigns over the Ukraine standoff are largely taking place in public view and being carried out by government leaders. 

“The most influential vector is Kremlin officials muddying the waters” online, said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center think tank. “This is then reflected in state-run media and laundered into the Western information ecosystem,” she added.

That makes those messages harder for social media platforms, which have historically been reluctant to wade into global affairs by silencing government officials, to police.

That’s put a greater onus on platforms to clearly label what is and isn’t a state actor or news organization, said Brookie, who served on the National Security Council in the Obama administration. 

“I'm sympathetic to the platform's responsibility here because it's literally world leaders positioning, but labeling Russian officials or even U.S. officials … so that everybody knows the source of information” is key, Brookie said. 

Jankowicz said pro-Russian messaging on digital platforms has been largely centralized, “broadly mirroring what Russian officials are signaling.”

These efforts have focused on pushing pro-Russian claims of aggression by Ukraine and NATO member countries and linking Ukrainians to Nazism. 

Although Russian messaging has remained largely centralized, it has begun presenting on a broader array of digital platforms, Jankowicz said. 

“While in 2014 … we saw more footage and online influence campaigns on Russian social media and message boards, now we are seeing more on TikTok and Instagram, which did not play a role earlier on,” she said. “This includes footage of troop and equipment movements as well as propaganda-type videos supporting the Russian regime.”

As prominent social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have beefed up their defenses against coordinated disinformation campaigns, more of this activity is taking place on more private platforms, said Jankowicz, who advised the Ukrainian government as part of the Fulbright-Clinton public policy fellowship.

“Social media companies have gotten better at detecting trolls and bots, and the public has gotten savvier about them, which is why we see more of these narratives coming out on platforms like Telegram,” she added.

Our top tabs

Key Democratic senator says he’ll be back soon

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) on Feb. 13 said he would complete his recovery and return to Congress in the coming weeks after he suffered a stroke in January. (Video: Senator Ben Ray Luján)

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said his recovery from a stroke will “take a few more weeks,” Amy B Wang reports. Luján’s return is critical for Democrats who want to quickly confirm Biden nominees to the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission. 

The Senate Commerce Committee was scheduled to hold a vote on net neutrality advocate Gigi Sohn, Biden’s pick to join the FCC, and Alvaro Bedoya, his pick to be an FTC commissioner. However, the vote was postponed. The committee last week held a second hearing for Sohn, who has faced vocal opposition from Republicans. Sohn said she has faced  “unrelenting, unfair, and outright false criticism and scrutiny.”

The IRS directed 7 million people to scan their faces

Those Americans were told to use ID.me’s face-scanning software before the Internal Revenue Service abandoned its plans to make the service mandatory, Cat Zakrzewski reports. The scope of the program raises concerns about the security of records that the company has obtained.

IRS officials told House Oversight Committee staff about the program’s scope on Feb. 4, according to a letter sent by the committee’s chair, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). 

The briefing raised concerns about “the ongoing impact on the millions of Americans who have already turned over their biometric data to a private company,” Maloney wrote.

Maloney pressed IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig on plans to destroy the data and make sure that ID.me doesn’t use the data for “unapproved or unauthorized purposes.” “Those Americans’ highly personal information may continue to be held by a third party outside of the IRS’s direct control — increasing the potential for exposure due to bad actors and other cybersecurity incidents,” she wrote. ID.me says anyone will be able to delete their selfies and other biometric data beginning in March.

Facebook removed groups related to Canada's ‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters

A Bangladeshi marketing firm was behind two of the Facebook groups, which had more than 170,000 members, Grid's Steve Reilly, Matt Stiles, Benjamin Powers, Anya van Wagtendonk and Jason Paladino report. Facebook removed the groups, which promoted donation pages for protesters and convoy-related events, last week.

The self-styled “Freedom Convoy” began arriving in Canada's capital, Ottawa, two weeks ago to protest federal vaccine requirements for cross-border truckers. In the weeks since, the protesters have blockaded border crossings and paralyzed Ottawa. The protests have also expanded into a movement against largely provincial pandemic restrictions and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Meanwhile, Facebook says that groups promoting U.S. protests like the ones in Canada have been run by fake accounts tied to firms in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Romania and elsewhere, NBC News's Ben Collins reports.

“Voicing opposition to government mandates is not against Meta’s policies,” a Facebook spokesperson told Collins. “However, we have removed multiple groups and Pages for repeatedly violating our policies prohibiting QAnon content and those run by spammers in different countries around the world. We continue to monitor the situation and take action.”

Rant and rave

A Super Bowl ad by Facebook parent Meta advertised its virtual reality headset by portraying an animatronic dog who ventures to the metaverse. The ad stirred people's emotions — but perhaps not the ones the company was looking for. Actress Patti Murin:

Journalist Judd Legum:

Popsugar’s Lindsay L Miller:

Television writer and producer Krister Johnson:

Tom’s Guide’s Philip Michaels:

Inside the industry

Amazon and Spotify mull bids for London-listed podcaster Audioboom (Sky News)

Rising popularity of VR headsets sparks 31% rise in insurance claims (The Guardian)

Workforce report

Making ‘dinobabies’ extinct: IBM’s push for a younger workforce (New York Times)

Trending

Coinbase’s bouncing QR code Super Bowl ad was so popular it crashed the app (The Verge)

Daybook

  • Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) speaks at an ITI and Bridge for Innovation event on technology equity and opportunity today at 1 p.m.
  • FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson speaks at a U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center event today at 2 p.m.
  • A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel holds a hearing on oversight of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on Wednesday at noon.
  • The Atlantic Council hosts an event on European data policy on Thursday at 11:30 a.m.

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