AI is amplifying online disinformation, says Ukrainian media specialist

22 February 2024, 12:24

Valeria Kovtun
Russian invasion of Ukraine. Picture: PA

Valeria Kovtun said disinformation on social media around the war in Ukraine is aimed at creating ‘distrust’ and ‘divide’.

A Ukrainian media specialist has said disinformation about the war in her country is being presented on social media like a “fire hose of falsehood” and detailed how AI technology is being used to create a narrative of “distrust”.

Valeria Kovtun, who currently splits her time between Kyiv and London, said “every internal problem” in Ukraine is “always weaponised by an external enemy” which “undermines morale” and “increases divide” following nearly two years of war.

Ms Kovtun, 26, said AI-generated images are used online to create a narrative of “distrust towards Ukrainian leadership” and she has noticed a rise of disinformation on social media platforms where videos appear in a short, vertical format, such as TikTok, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts due to their popularity.

“It’s a fire hose of falsehood as they say, the propaganda and disinformation,” Ms Kovtun told the PA news agency.

“Disinformation affects the mental wellbeing of people, especially on vertical videos that are super popular now like TikTok and YouTube Shorts, and Russia uses it to undermine morale and increase divide between Ukrainians.”

Ms Kovtun said AI technology is being used to generate images which aim to create specific and targeted narratives.

“We see TikTok videos with a selection of AI-generated pictures that represent the war in Ukraine but they all come under hashtags like corruption and they’re connected to feelings of uncertainty,” she said.

Ms Kovtun described one instance where a storyline was constructed through AI images to show a Ukrainian man going to the warzone despite not being willing to do so, resulting in a feeling of disbelief in Ukrainian MPs.

“This is kind of the narrative they try to deliver, that there’s distrust towards Ukrainian leadership, distrust towards the state, and it’s very obvious that it’s curated from elsewhere,” she said.

She added that this page in particular had a “very specific goal” but there are “numerous pages like this”, sometimes with millions of views and hundreds or thousands of likes and comments.

Ms Kovtun said that the rise of disinformation on social media sites with short, vertical videos has been more apparent “because Russia identified the platforms where Ukrainians tend to spend more time”.

“As people look for fun and entertainment, they will usually go to TikTok or any other platform with short format videos like Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts, and that’s where the propaganda disinformation can potentially find the target,” she said.

“I think I’ve seen it more often in the last couple of months – I’m not an active user of TikTok but let’s say I use it for 10, 15 minutes per day, I’d come across at least three videos I see that are produced by Russia to undermine the morale of Ukrainians.

“People are tired, physically and mentally, and looking for an escape and Russia identified the platforms where Ukrainians tend to spend a lot of time, especially late at night after work.

“These platforms were overlooked, especially in the first year of war.”

When asked if she thinks social media companies have a responsibility to moderate the content uploaded to their platforms to tackle disinformation, Ms Kovtun said there is “not a silver bullet approach”.

“Social media platforms need to have their own policy, and they need to be flexible and adapt this policy depending on the development of AI and how other states are using these platforms to target other audiences with disinformation,” she said.

According to YouTube, the platform has removed more than 96,000 videos and 12,000 channels related to the war in Ukraine for violating their community guidelines, with aims to remove content that has been manipulated or doctored to mislead users.

According to TikTok, synthetic or manipulated media that shows realistic scenes must be clearly disclosed with the use of a sticker or caption, and the platform aims to remove content or accounts that violate their community guidelines.

Ms Kovtun said the way she combats disinformation is to “create a clear sense of understanding of what we are standing for”, rather than debunking each case she sees online.

“There are so many AI tools used to scale-up disinformation and spread it on all possible platforms, so it doesn’t make sense to debunk each piece,” she said.

“It does make sense to create a clear understanding of what we are standing for by finding stories of the past that resonate with the present and explain the way Ukraine aims to build their own state and defend their own identity.”

By Press Association

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