Google’s Plan to Stare Down Fake News on Ukrainian Refugees

Google of Alphabet Inc. hopes that an advertising campaign can help prevent the spread of disinformation about Ukrainian refugees who fled the invasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin from shaping public opinion.

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(Bloomberg) – Google of Alphabet Inc. hopes an advertising campaign can help prevent the spread of disinformation about Ukrainian refugees who fled the invasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin from shaping public opinion.

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Google premieres a series of 90-second videos in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic that will try to educate viewers on how to avoid being manipulated, according to Beth Goldberg, head of research at its anti-propaganda unit Jigsaw.

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The spread of disinformation has become a major political issue in the European Union, with watchdogs warning that Russian-affiliated sites and social media accounts are promoting false pro-Kremlin narratives six months into the war. An effective response remains elusive, despite the EU ban on Russian state media like RT and new rules ordering internet giants like Google and Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms Inc. to oversee their platforms more rigorously to hate speech and fake news.

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More than 5.6 million refugees from Ukraine have flooded Europe since the start of the war, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many have been welcomed into host nations, but resentment against them is growing, fueled by rising inflation and economic worries as Russia cuts off energy supplies.

“We have seen from past migration waves that there are some tactics that are being used, such as scapegoating and fear,” Goldberg said in an interview. Google’s program will help researchers understand how effective shorts are at “inoculating” viewers against propaganda, she said.

Russia relies on state media, anonymous websites, and accounts on digital platforms such as YouTube and TikTok to spread a constant drumming of conspiracy theories, ranging from a NATO plot to establish a base in Ukraine to the sale of vast tracts of Ukrainian farmland at US farms, according to NewsGuard, a startup that tracks the credibility of the news.

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Critics say the Kremlin wants to destroy European unity against invasion, which has led to unprecedented EU sanctions that have helped limp the Russian economy and made it harder for Russians to travel around the bloc.

Russia’s efforts are designed to “undermine the EU’s global position, reduce European public support for Ukraine and cause political upheaval within the EU,” said Joseph Bodnar, a Russian disinformation analyst at the Alliance for the Security of Democracy.

“Pre-bunking”

According to Goldberg, Jigsaw will use what he calls “pre-bunking,” or an attempt to build resistance to propaganda by explaining how it works, in countries where narratives demonizing Ukrainian refugees are already spreading.

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The strategy was developed by Jigsaw in collaboration with researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Bristol who released a report last week showing that misinformation is harder to debunk after it has taken hold.

The study, which involved 30,000 participants, concluded that people from a wide range of ideological backgrounds were better able to identify falsehoods after watching short, sometimes humorous, videos explaining common propaganda tools like drawing false dichotomies.

Attempts to identify and counter fake news have flourished since the invasion. In May, Slovak Facebook feeds were flooded with posts claiming Ukrainians support fascism and that the Kiev government was secretly developing biological weapons. Meta at the time said it had removed some of the content and was working with third-party fact-checkers to expose the misinformation.

The Czech Elves, a network of volunteers who monitor disinformation online, said in a May report that Ukrainian refugees were falsely described as responsible for rising prices in the country.

Google’s experience could have implications beyond Europe. Social media companies are bracing for a new onslaught of disinformation ahead of the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States. Facebook and TikTok have announced strategies for verifying posts and highlighting misinformation.

However, watchdogs have warned that the volume of content posted on these platforms is difficult to screen.

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