Elon Musk's erosion of safety standards at X is helping Putin spread Russian propaganda, study finds

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  • Elon Musk's policy changes at X have allowed Russian propaganda to spread more easily, a study found.

  • Eliminating labelling and de-amplifying policies benefitted Kremlin-affiliated accounts, per the study.

  • Attempts by other social media platforms to combat disinformation have also struggled.

Changes made by Elon Musk to X's safety policies have played a key role in increasing the reach of Russian propaganda, according to a study released by the European Commission.

"Preliminary analysis suggests that the reach and influence of Kremlin-backed accounts has grown further in the first half of 2023, driven in particular by the dismantling of Twitter's safety standards," the year-long study carried out by the nonprofit analysis group Reset concluded.

Prior to Musk's takeover of X, formerly Twitter, the company had a policy of labelling and de-amplifying Kremlin-affiliated accounts in an effort to encourage transparency and minimise the reach of propaganda. "We will no longer amplify state-affiliated media accounts or their Tweets through our recommendation systems," Twitter said in a 2020 blog post.

However, as Musk continued to overhaul the social media platform, this policy was dropped in April.

Last month, the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence also accused Musk's changes of prompting a "dramatic rise in the Kremlin's visibility on Twitter".

Europe has taken a much tougher line on disinformation than the US. The Digital Services Act that took effect last month requires major tech companies to actively tackle risks relating to child safety, harassment, illegal content, and threats to electoral processes or risk significant fines.

The EU study found that X's failure to tackle the spread of disinformation would have violated these rules had they been in effect last year.

Even social media companies that have been more cooperative than Musk in attempting to limit propaganda are failing. The research found that efforts by the likes of Telegram and Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, were largely ineffective in limiting Russian disinformation campaigns.

"Over the course of 2022, the audience and reach of Kremlin-aligned social media accounts increased substantially all over Europe," the report states. Overt Kremlin-backed accounts that are not blocked in the EU have at least 165 million subscribers and were viewed at least 16 billion times in 2022.

X did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Insider, made outside normal working hours.

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