Trump got banned from Twitter for spreading lies – so what do we do with Russia?

Free speech matters – now, more than ever. But what about when it is used as part of an orchestrated attempt to crush that of others, and to kill those who resist?

James Moore
Thursday 24 March 2022 14:46
Comments
<p>We now know just how dangerous disinformation and misinformation can be</p>

We now know just how dangerous disinformation and misinformation can be

There’s something that’s both slightly surreal but also spectacularly tasteless about the daily Twitter “good morning” issued by Russia’s embassy to the UK.

The beetle-like person in charge of its feed – that description is a favourite of Orwell’s, so I think it’s entirely appropriate for someone running an Orwellian account – always posts a scenic image from Russia to accompany the greeting. Sometimes it’s from the natural world. Sometimes it’s a picture of an architectural treasure, often a church. There are plenty of both to choose from.

Russia is a beautiful country – I’ve been there. The tastelessness of this type of tweet comes from the fact that that country, and its ugly leaders, are currently raining ordinance down on the architectural treasures, and sometimes the natural ones, of Ukraine – the country next door. Through that lens, you could actually see the tweets as a very nasty form of trolling.

Pictures and video footage of Russia’s brutality tend to feature prominently in the replies to the greeting. Some of them are chilling. Some of them are amusingly insulting towards the nation’s President Vladimir Putin and his goons. It’s hard to laugh, given the savagery they’ve unleashed; but tyrants aren’t overly fond of mockery, so perhaps we should – laughter and mockery can be powerful weapons.

The various memes also feature prominently in the replies to the rest of what the account pumps out – a mixture of misinformation, hysterical propaganda, and the shrill statements issued by Russian leaders. Trouble is, this stuff also gets retweeted and then it starts to circulate among the cynical and the credulous.

Sure, some of those retweets are as derogatory as the replies; along the line of, “look at what these a*******s are saying now”. But plenty aren’t. I’ve spent some time down the rabbit hole, seeing where they end up. They circulate quite widely – which is why they are put out. Included among them, for example, is the lie that the US has been funding bio-labs in Ukraine, a lie which some fear Putin could use as a pretext for deploying chemical agents or other illegal weapons – as part of his illegal war.

We now know just how dangerous disinformation and misinformation can be. There was plenty of the latter around when the pandemic was at its peak – particularly on the subject of vaccinations. And some of this misinformation proved to be lethal, as people sucked into the alternative reality created by the anti-vaxx “movement” got sick and died needlessly. They still are.

Seen Britain’s case numbers and hospitalisations, recently? The response of social media giants to this misinformation has been the subject of considerable debate – and criticism.

On the other hand, John Villasenor, writing for the Brookings Institute, a US think thank, has argued that “in the age of Covid, Twitter has become a key platform for some of the world’s top experts to contribute to real-time knowledge-sharing”.

Count that as part of the case for the defence. But the consensus is that while they did react, they didn’t do enough; especially in response to misinformation in languages other than English. Donald Trump (remember him?), meanwhile, was permanently kicked off Twitter “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” in the wake of the riots/insurrection/attempted coup at the US Capital that followed his thumping election loss.

Prior to that, tweets relating to his big lie (that said election was stolen from him), were frequently flagged where they weren’t taken down. That extended to those put up by his friends and allies, most of whom remain active on the platform.

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You can see where this is leading, can’t you? The US capitol riot involved a relatively small number of dim-witted yahoos, waving traitors’ flags. Sure, they were scary yahoos. Some were armed – people died as a result of their actions in the midst of a citadel of democracy. But the riot looks like small beer when compared to what Russia is doing to another democratic nation.

There is a rather obvious inconsistency in allowing Russian embassies to freely tweet misinformation that is getting people killed, and could easily be used as an excuse to kill more – up to and including the use of weapons of mass destruction – when Trump has been denied his favourite means of communication and is reduced to sending out angry old man statements from his Mar-a-Lago retreat, while he watches Florida governor Ron DeSantis steal his thunder.

While I’ve obviously focused on Twitter, here; this applies to its rivals as well. Free speech matters – now, more than ever. But what about when it is used as part of an orchestrated attempt to crush that of others, and to kill those who resist?

This raises a question the world’s social media giants need to address. And so do we.

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