You can hide from war propaganda, but it will still find you anyway

January 02. 2024. – 09:01 AM


You can hide from war propaganda, but it will still find you anyway
Illustration by Péter Somogyi (szarvas) / Telex


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There is a saying in Transylvania that says you don't stand a chance against a bear because it runs faster than you, swims faster than you, climbs trees faster than you, and there's no point in hiding either because it does that faster than you too. It's the same with war propaganda on social media. I know this because I've spent the last three weeks playing hide and seek with it on three different platforms, but it always found me in the end.

Almost two years ago, the Russian-Ukrainian war entered our lives, our day-to-day affairs, in a way that no war has ever managed to do before. Thirty years ago, the war in Iraq was called the CNN war because at the time the novelty was that we could watch what was happening live on television. Today, by comparison, an endless stream of social media brings the front lines, the trenches, the bombed-out cities, the drone strikes, the suffering, sometimes uncut and uncensored death, straight to our phones.

And because information warfare has always played a part in war, this content is often created to manipulate its audience, to sway them to one side or the other. Memes, talking heads, fake or misleading news stories – all these can be used as weapons to shape public opinion, and are employed by all warring parties. It is a war waged in the shadow of war, and we are all part of it, whether we want to be or not.

As to who is winning in this information war, it is hard to say. At any rate, we have made an attempt to figure it out and walked right into the middle of battle to take the brunt of its blows. We conducted a human experiment by registering a new user on each of three different social media platforms, from a new email address created specifically for this purpose, and using a fresh browser in order to get a completely clean slate. Then we simply relied on the platforms' algorithms to feed us content. The three battlefields:

  • Facebook, which typically has an older audience and a lot of content in Hungarian.
  • Twitter, which has a younger and more highly educated audience and tends to have more English-language content (even from Hungarian users).
  • TikTok, which features video and viral content and a teenage target audience.

We tried to give as much control as possible to the algorithms to generate our news feeds. When it wasn't necessary, we didn't specify any interests when registering. We didn't follow anyone for the first week, and later only those recommended by the system based on our previous activities, and no more than one per day. But we did make it clear that we were interested in the news of the war, so we regularly searched for relevant terms and hashtags, in both Hungarian and English: war, Russia, Ukraine, Putin, Zelensky.

Likewise, when there was a major event, such as the one-day rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary army, we also searched for that. We clicked on every relevant post that came our way, and we watched every video, but we refused to give the algorithms any feedback by liking or commenting. And so it went for three weeks: we returned to each arena every day or two and rolled the dice for about 15-20 minutes.

The first front: Facebook

"There shouldn't be many surprises here," I thought naively, since I was familiar with the depths of the Facebook swamp thanks to our series on the Championship of Likes, and well, I had done a similar human experiment here at some point during our time at Boy, was I wrong: 2023 Facebook is a very, very different world from 2015 Facebook.

When registering, you have to enter your gender and birthday, so the algorithm tried to guess what I might be interested in based on that (of course, it can know a lot more about me based on the information from my IP address, phone, laptop, and browser). Its first guesses were Neymar, Dwayne Johnson, over-enhanced drone shots of waterfalls, engines with unreasonably large cylinders, and M&M's with Nutella. I can't say that it was a perfect bullseye, and the first Hungarian content to creep up didn't improve it much: Balázs Sebestyén, Pákó Fekete and garlic lángos-flavored ice cream. Not to mention the incessant stream of Megafon ads right from the start. My main impression after the first few days was that it was very, very boring.

Three weeks later

Quite unexpectedly, most of the Russian propaganda I receive comes from Indian, Vietnamese, Nepali and similar sites. Sure, you read here and there about the Russians heavily channeling their propaganda towards developing countries, or the Global South as they are now commonly called, but it is quite another thing to experience it firsthand. The content usually consists of very badly photoshopped photos, plus the regular idolization of Putin and the glorification of Russian military technology and all sorts of miracle weapons. The news constantly depicts the impending Russian victory, the destruction of Ukraine, and the total, humiliating collapse of the West. For a while I had a very strange feeling of déjà vu, then I realized why it was all so familiar: it was like reading the headlines in the Hungarian pro-government news site Origo.

From the Ukrainian side, it is mostly memes and cartoons, with Viktor Orbán making an embarrassingly frequent appearance, usually as a servant polishing Putin's boots. There are a lot of videos, typically slow-motion battlefield footage with HIMARs firing in bursts to heroic background music, drone videos of Russian tanks being blown up, or just Ukrainian soldiers flashing their guns. The message here is something along the lines of, 'Hey, we're so ridiculously and immeasurably cool that any one of our privates is basically the sum of Aragorn, John Wick and Batman multiplied by two – and that's just the bottom rank.'

Nearly all of the propaganda in Hungarian is pro-Russian, and much of it is from a site called Orosz hírek ["Russian news"], or some subdivision of it. Someone has obviously put a lot of work into this site: there is a lot of content, and it is visibly well done from a technical point of view. Statements and speeches made by Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov or former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson are presented with Hungarian subtitles, and the news is surprisingly subdued, as if we were getting Russian public television or András Bencsik heavily filtered and toned down. It's like when you're at the dentist and the anesthetic injection hasn't kicked in yet, but you can already feel the tingling sensation.

On the whole, when I'm not looking for it directly, the war doesn't dominate the Facebook feed, but what does seep in is almost all propaganda, with a strong Russian bias. The non-war content is boring and uninteresting, the algorithm makes a valiant attempt to figure out what interests you, but without much success. Far from it, sometimes it offers a glimpse into rather exotic subcultures. For example, at one time I was shown a lot of Pakistani sports videos, cricket, field hockey, and polo. More recently, it started to suggest Fidesz micro-influencers: Szakács Pisti, az Öreg Rocker, Ahogy a gazda látja, and the like. They are trying very hard to appear like Megafon-backed influencers, and well, frankly, it is hard to imagine anything sadder than people whose life dream and mission is to one day be the next Kristóf Trombitás.

Then, on the second to last day of the experiment, Facebook unexpectedly blocked my account, saying my activity violated the Community Standards. I didn't dispute it.

The second front: Twitter

I've been a passive Twitter user for many years now, and while the user experience has fallen dramatically since Elon Musk took over, it still works as a great source of news by following a few basic rules (never read the comments, ignore blue-tick users, etc.). But what would it be like with a fresh account, without the safety net of our painstakingly maintained list of subscriptions? Well, as Musk himself would say, "interesting" and "worrying", plus the crying-laughing and thought-provoking emojis.

The first thing you have to do when registering is to enter three interests (which I did with the most generic ones: travel, music, sports) and choose at least one account to follow. Then the system immediately gives you suggestions, and what do you know, the first on the list is the owner, Elon Musk. Just to be safe, I followed the first five suggestions, in order after Musk: the official channel of Formula 1, Ben Shapiro (a popular alt-right influencer), Cathy Heaven (a random OnlyFans model), and Breitbart News (the number one news source in the Trump universe). Of the first ten posts that appear in my newsfeed, nine are from Elon Musk. At this point, I suspected I was in for a pretty rough couple of weeks.

Three weeks later

Within the Twitter universe that I stumbled into, the war is not presented as a stand-alone event, but as a slice of the cultural struggle of life and death against wokeism. Case in point: the most common explanation of the Prigozhin riot was that it was organized by the CIA as a way to divert attention from what Hunter Biden was doing. When Meta's Twitter clone Threads was launched, it discussed the fact that Meta's logo is a satanic symbol because you can see three 6s in it. It also declared that New York had banned pizza and that no one died in the Holocaust.

In this world, Russian propaganda is mostly a by-product of the Biden administration's vilification, such as when pro-QAnon Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green calls for America not to give billions to "the Ukrainian Nazi army". I think if Nietzsche were alive today, his famous saying would be that when you look into the depths of Twitter, Twitter looks back at you.

It's astonishing how much Musk has shaped Twitter in his own image – at least for new users. The algorithm amplifies a thousand times over every post that Musk comments on, and Musk – ignoring the classic Spider-Man admonition – casually hands this boost out to anyone and everyone, including fake accounts, fake-news spreaders, pure Nazis; and most of all, the huge fanbase that surrounds him.

It's a very odd, very mixed bunch, including influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers, cryptocurrency traders, trolls, and ordinary fans – what they all have in common is that they all pay $8 a month for the blue checkmark icon that gives them a privileged status. They also all rush to agree with Musk under every post and comment, just in case he throws them a bone in the form of a reply. Due to Musk's Twitter gravitas, this kind of thing pops up quite often in front of virgin users like me, which is why I'm regularly informed about the worldview of a retired Florida man posting under the name Catturd or a Malaysian guy named Ian Miles Cheong, who pretends to be an American patriot and is anatomically incapable of smiling. And almost without fail, it's always the same as that of Elon Musk.

Another weird subculture that the Twitter experiment introduced me to is the world of MAGA podcasters. It's as if after Joe Rogan's success, every Trump fan started their own podcast, named it after themselves, copied Rogan's studio, decked it out with American flags, pictures of Jesus or AR-15 machine guns, and got down to business. Trump's own son Don Junior does a podcast like this, and then there's the Charlie Kirk Show, the Benny Johnson Show, the Tim Pool Show, the Matt Walsh Show, the Ben Shapiro Show, the Dan Bongino Show, the Candace Owens Show, the Michael Knowles Show, and of course Tucker Carlson, which is not simply called "Show", it's "Tucker on Twitter", and that in itself is a revolutionary innovation in this field. They already have a very strong Twitter presence, but the 1-2 minute snippets from their shows are even more viral. At the time of our experiment, for example, it was Michael Knowles bashing contraception and commenting that condoms are "pretty gay". Russian war propaganda also pops up from time to time, but only tangentially.

Beyond that, it's mostly meme warfare, such as the NAFO movement or channels like Ukrainian Meme Forces or Saint Javelin. Another interesting phenomenon is that several Twitter feeds feature Russian propaganda intended for its domestic audience – or rather, presented in its purest form, that of clips taken from Russian TV. Watching these is like being the protagonist of a Lovecraft novel, whose mind is slowly but surely rotting away from the call of Cthulhu.

The third front: TikTok

It's common knowledge that anything invented after your 35th birthday is contrary to the order of nature, absolute nonsense, and a sure sign of the decline of civilization and the coming apocalypse. Well, for me, that's basically TikTok. Of course, out of sheer professional curiosity, I watched and observed it from a safe distance, but I've never really got the feel for it. I'm not a part of the target audience, that's clear – and that didn't change much in the three weeks of the experiment.

Everyone says that TikTok is a hotbed of Russian propaganda, but by contrast, the first content I came across was quite neutral: a dachshund wagging its tail, a toddler dancing, a girl jumping around in a gym, a guy eating a hamburger in a disgusting way, 53,234,254,325 girls singing and/or shouting in random languages into the camera. The first Hungarian content I came across was a video of a school graduation with the caption "congratulations to Rafael and his family", followed by a lame advertisement with the promise "how to make hundreds of thousands of forints as an unemployed person." It's all so devastatingly pointless – I've never felt like such a boomer.

It is not helped by the fact that users are very creative and effective in testing the limits of the algorithm as to what does and does not count as sexual content. At the moment, it's typically a frontal cameltoe placed two inches in front of the camera with pubic hair peeping out of a bikini bottom. If anyone is going to repeat this human experiment, here's a word of advice: don't try to do the TikTok part on public transport, where every Tom, Dick, and Harry can see your phone.

Three weeks later

Of the three platforms, TikTok was by far the fastest to understand what I was looking for based on my searches; it was frighteningly quick and effective to zero in on the war content. Now roughly half, maybe two-thirds of my feed is war propaganda, the rest is practically noise. This can result in some rather bizarre sequence patterns when scrolling: Putin speaks → a teenager pops a gigantic pimple → battlefield video of a drone strike → someone washing their feet with Coke → shot-up houses somewhere in Bakhmut → Putin photoshopped into a champagne DiCaprio meme → a chiropractor claiming to be able to fix anything → a very haggard, wounded soldier gesturing to the camera → a girl showing off her tongue piercing.

The war content is 99% propaganda, 90% of which is Russian, and 0% subtle. The biggest trend is to place little flag emojis on videos of dogs fighting so that everyone gets the metaphor. Of course, the big, calm one is always the Russian, the neurotic aggressor is the Ukrainian, and the one yapping in the background and then slinking away when the Russian mauls the Ukrainian is the American. There are probably a million of these videos.

Then there are some pretty brutal battlefield videos, a lot of subtitled Putin speeches (but I even got Viktor Orbán subtitled in Romanian), videos of individuals spewing out sweeping world views into the camera in 20 seconds, or the most pointless, when the video is a screenshot of the first two paragraphs of a Mandiner or Vadhajtások article or even a Facebook comment thread with emojis bouncing around plus some music from the Balaton Sound festival from 6-8 years ago.

It's particularly true for TikTok that the stimulus threshold is extremely high, and a video has just a few seconds to grab the viewer's attention before they scroll on. Accordingly, every content producer goes to extraordinary lengths to make their videos flashier than others'. The end result is like replacing the battery in the cymbal-clapping monkey toy with the ARC reactor from the Iron Man movies, and then putting 10,000 of them in a room with you sitting in the middle. There is probably some very deep, visceral level of war propaganda at work in this setting, but I rather suspect that for the Russians this is just another tap from which their narrative must flow, because nothing else is flowing.

Three weeks of war

I started dozens of paragraphs above by saying that war propaganda is like a bear, and now, three weeks later, I can absolutely confirm that. I mean, in the sense that you can recognize it from far away, and it is better not to go near it but to observe it from a distance, cautiously, and then withdraw. I have been bombarded with propaganda in varying quantities and forms on the three platforms, but across the board I have received far more than a healthy amount. Mostly pro-Russian, but even Ukrainian as well. But what I got almost none of, or only traces of, when I searched for the war was real news stories, analyses and so on. Yet they do exist on these platforms (on Facebook and Twitter, at least), and there are plenty of them, but if we put our fate in the hands of the algorithm, it doesn't really come up with any of it.

And this was the biggest lesson of the experiment for me (apart from the fact that I'm too old for TikTok): if you use social media consciously and sensibly, it can show you some super cool things. But if you let the algorithm use you, well…did I mention what happens when you poke a bear too much?