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Twitter’s New Business Model: Russian Disinfo

I’m at an event today at UMass Amherst put together by colleagues to launch the new initiative, GloTech, which focuses on perspectives on technology and media from the Global Majority. I’m thrilled to be a senior fellow with GloTech and to lend a hand today with moderating a panel on elections around the world, and the role of mis/disinfo and foreign influence in global elections.

So my mind is on questions of election interference. And that’s a helpful frame with which to explore X, Elon Musk’s transformed Twitter, which has moved from being a space that carefully labeled misinformation and foreign influence operations, to one which now relies on Russian propagandists as a key advertiser.

Here’s the ad, which had received over 300,000 impressions by the time I saw it last night:

Screenshot of twitter ad

From a casual glance, you can see that the advertiser, Truth In Media, is blue-check certified, a marker that used to indicate that a user was a verified journalist or other public figure, then signified that the user was an Elon Musk fanboy, and now that Twitter has been returning blue-checks to popular accounts, now is a deeply ambiguous signal. @Truth_InMedia has over 80,000 followers, but follows 37 accounts, and those accounts suggest the possible politics for the account. They include notorious Internet troll @catturd2, QAnon-aligned felon and general Mike Flynn, far right heroes Dinesh D’Sousa and Lara Logan, and finally, Ben Swann.

Who’s Ben Swann? He became a news presenter in El Paso in the late 1990s, migrated to Cincinatti and eventually to Atlanta, where he worked for CBS’s Atlanta affiliate. Between his time in Cincinatti and Atlanta, he worked for RT America, the propaganda outlet owned by TV Novosti, an “autonomous non-profit organization” founded by the Russian state owned newsagency, RIA Novosti. While in Cincinatti, Swann began a segment called “Reality Check”, which sometimes featured alt-right conspiracy theories, and started a website called Truth in Media, which covered similar subjects. In 2017, “Reality Check” addressed the Pizzagate conspiracy, which led to station management demanding Swann take down his Truth in Media site and social media accounts. When Swann restored Truth in Media, the station fired him, and Swann returned to RT America.

Since his departure from the broadcast airwaves, Swann has strengthened his financial ties with RIA Novosti, taking $5 million in funding to produce 50 episodes of 4 shows. The shows Swann agreed to produce focus on themes popular in Russian propaganda: “the United States and NATO continuing to spread war around the world,” “the economic warfare waged by the United States and its allies,” and “transgender issues in the United States”, according to reporting by Axios. When Swann was asked by the DOJ what he knew about TV Novosti, he said “I believe that TV Novosti is an autonomous organization but it does receive funding from the Russian government through the Russian Federation.” Axios reports that TV Novosti in fact received roughly half a billion dollars from the Russian government in 2022.

So: the ad above presents a “documentary” narrated by an American conspiracy theorist who’s been thrown off broadcast media for promoting falsehoods like the Pizzagate conspiracy. The documentary is consistent with themes he’s been paid by a Russian government agency to produce, and it directly amplifies Russian-government talking points about Ukraine. This is paid Russian political propaganda aimed at right-leaning US audiences, designed to undercut US government support for Ukraine, found in the wild.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Twitter worked hard to label government-sponsored media outlets. Then Elon decided to troll NPR by labeling it state-affiliated media, before deciding to remove these labels altogether. Not only is state-sponsored media allowed on Twitter without labels now, government disinfo is now a revenue source for Musk’s failing social network.

There’s lots to worry about in 2024 from the troubled information environment we face. I am less worried about how AI will be used to create deepfakes than I am concerned about naked state propaganda like this documentary. While it took me only a few minutes to figure out who was behind this documentary, it’s certainly not clear on the surface. And there’s enough truth in the documentary – Zelenskyy is indeed very famous, is an unusual politician, and Ukraine does suffer from tremendous political and commercial corruption – that someone encountering this film without understanding the agenda behind it might consume it uncritically.

Influence operations like this are a BARGAIN for Putin. If more right-leaning politicians block aid to Ukraine, Russia is far more likely to win their expensive and bloody war. Swann may genuinely feel that Zelenskyy’s background deserves more investigation. But journalism demands transparency about funding sources and the agendas behind them. Twitter has made it clear that it’s no longer interested in preventing the spread of government disinformation so long as Elon shares the agenda in question, or perhaps so long as the propagandist is willing to pay enough.

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