As the war in Ukraine rages on, Russia's war efforts are not restricted to battlefields of Bakhmut. Instead, they stretch across the internet.
This is a cautionary tale about the nefarious tendrils of poisonous influence that Russia (and perhaps other state actors) can and do spread to take root in our daily lives and our political landscapes.
Over the last year and a half, I have had an obsession that has transformed itself into my main job, my livelihood. My original YouTube channel, A Tippling Philosopher, was focused on philosophy, humanism, and secular ideals. As the war broke out in Ukraine, I became fascinated by the events and the geopolitical chess game playing out in front of us. I started to make videos on that topic to run alongside my philosophical work, supporting my claims and observations with healthy dollops of philosophy and psychology.
The viewership of these videos quickly far outstripped my philosophy ones, so I created a new channel. Fast-forward over a year, and ATP Geopolitics has grown to over 30,000 subscribers with many community members. I’m incredibly proud of a very strong and loyal following who seem to have taken to my very robust moral and political pro-Ukrainian stance that is wedded to my desire to report things as accurately as possible and not to succumb to my biases.
For a long time, the threads on my videos have been infested with the activity of a fair number of Russian trolls. This was potentially a badge of honor in terms of the impact my channel was having on the information space. Most of the time, you can spot these trolls easily as they all use similar techniques. Sometimes, they weasel themselves in with seemingly pro-Ukrainian introductions that end up smuggling in controversial and pro-Kremlin views.
For more detail on how both patrols and bots work for the Russian hybrid warfare taking place in the information space (often seen as part of 5th-generation warfare), check out my video below:
But recently, Russian influence has moved beyond trying to manipulate the conversation in the threads of my videos.
All YouTube videos that are monetized—meaning they have adverts on them that YouTube places, which generate revenue for both YouTube and the channel—are scraped by YouTube bots that check them for potential infringements of their advertising policies. An advertiser might not want to associate their products with a video that espouses, for example, Holocaust denial.
I had a year of absolutely no issues with advertising until recently, when it started to become more difficult to get all of my videos accepted for advertising revenue. My suspicions were that Russian bad-faith actors had been reporting my channel en masse such that the channel became flagged to YouTube, who gave it extra special attention with their bots.
Over the last week, it has now got to the point where every single one of my videos is restricted. This means that they do not get thrown out by the algorithms to people’s feeds so fewer people watch them, and they also get no advertising revenue. When you work up to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, it gets frustrating when YouTube takes your job away from you at the flick of a switch.
From what I can gather, this is an ongoing challenge for virtually all pro-Ukrainian YouTube channels. It appears that pro-Russian channels can show all sorts of morally dubious footage and still get advertising revenue, but pro-Ukrainian channels are hammered by YouTube restrictions. This may have something to do with mass (but incorrect) reporting of pro-Ukrainian channels by Russian trolls sitting in their troll factories in St. Petersburg or Moscow.
This is particularly galling because I’ve been exceptionally careful over time not to show anything that is offensive because war is horrible and I don’t want to glorify it in any way. That’s not what I am about. I am more interested in this cerebral investigation into the politics and tactics, strategies and philosophy of this horrible invasion. Being consistently restricted for inappropriate material makes absolutely no sense to me since, as my viewership will tell you, it’s just not what I do.
As it got to the point where every single video was being restricted, I had to do a little fair test. One of the things I did was to read out nursery rhymes for a minute and half on one of my videos and upload the video with absolutely no metadata or thumbnail.
The video was rejected.
Rinse and repeat.
So it wasn’t the content that was getting rejected, but it was the (nature of my) channel that was being rejected.
To confirm this, I uploaded videos that were rejected on my ATP Geopolitics channel and uploaded them to my A Tippling Philosopher channel and they were all accepted without fail to my philosophy channel. In other words, it seems to be a channel bias and prejudice that is restricting content.
The ramifications of this are that, given the other channels are suffering from the same situation, pro-Ukrainian voices are being restricted on Google’s YouTube. This is a win for the Kremlin. I am now thoroughly disincentivized to and disenchanted with producing content on YouTube.
But it gets worse.
This week, I believe I was one of the first channels to be targeted by spurious copyright infringement violations. I had two videos that were completely removed by YouTube (and thus not receiving views or advertising revenue) because someone made copyright claims against the videos.
An Indian WhatsApp telephone number has logged a complaint against my video for, one assumes, footage or material that they own that falls within the video time range of 0:26 to 7:19. The problem is, here, for the entirety of that range, I am speaking about my own map, using my own thoughts about that map. There is literally no way this can be a copyright infringement.
A fairly similar situation exists for the other video. I appealed these very strongly and, three days later, the appeal was upheld on so far one of them.
Before I get into the details of this Indian entity, it is worth understanding that the only support I have had from YouTube appears to be “You just need to rely on the appeals process to challenge each of these decisions.” I have to log an appeal for each and every video that is restricted or claimed to be in copyright violation.
Here, the issue is that the appeals process takes about three days. Every single one of my videos is time-sensitive due to the fact that they are discussing news events on a particular day, or mapping changes on a particular date. These are not evergreen videos and no one watches them after the days on which they are released.
If the intention of the bad faith actors is for me to stop producing content because there is no incentive for me to produce this content, then forcing me to merely follow the appeals process is a win for the Russians.
Back to the Indians. I say Indians because that WhatsApp telephone number is an Indian number and if you try and play the videos in question, as a viewer, you will get a notification that the video can’t be played due to a copyright claim of WildFilmsIndia. As far as I can work out, this is an Indian stock footage company for wildlife imagery. Quite why they are making copyright claims about a random British bloke talking about a map that he has constructed for the Ukraine war, I am not sure.
I think there is more than meets the eye here. I’m fairly sure this would be somehow traceable to Russia.
What is particularly dubious is that it appears a number of exclusively pro-Ukrainian war reporting channels have subsequently been hit by this same company and same approach. I have reached out to one of them, Paul from Combat Veteran Reacts, to discuss this with him. His video detailing his issues and what is taking place is below. The title of the video is “My channel is being held hostage. I need your help.”:
We are not the only channels being attacked. There are other (much bigger) pro-Ukrainian channels receiving this treatment.
The result of both of these processes is that pro-Ukrainian YouTube channels are stripped of their revenue and thus incentive to spend every day working on this topic.
In all of these processes of trying to rectify the situation with YouTube and getting absolutely nowhere after weeks of interacting with lower-level, script-reading, unknown YouTube employees, I feel absolutely powerless. It’s a really frustrating place to be. No one in the organization appears to care enough to want to do something to change these broken systems and to actually deal with the threat of disinformation and interference from bad-faith actors.
In many ways, this kind of analysis is no different from any mainstream news or documentary program, certainly from my point of view. And yet mainstream news outlets are not demonetized or restricted.
This is war. No, we are not fighting with AK-47s and T-72 tanks. Instead, I am fighting with moral and political evaluations, fighting with truth over disinformation, fighting with the hope that good will prevail and the unjustified invasion of Ukraine by a Kremlin full of war criminals will be met with justice.
We have seen this activity before, of course. Meddling in US elections and the Brexit election was admitted by social media companies. The data is there. And, more worrying, is the claim that China is just warming up in this regard. They have even spent billions on the pro-Russian disinformation. We are living in an era where national security and cyber security have been joined by “epistemic security.” (In philosophy, epistemology is the study of knowledge and truth.)
This post-truth age that we live in prompted the U.K.’s Alan Turing Institute to release a report on epistemic security, as the BBC reported on the back of the pandemic and resultant information war:
The terms “national security” or “cyber-security” will be familiar. But we argue that more attention ought to be paid to “epistemic security” – because without it, our societies will lose the ability to respond to the most severe risks we face in the future….
In our report, we explore some of the possible consequences if we don’t act. One of the worst-case scenarios we called “epistemic babble”. In this future, the ability for the general population to tell the difference between truth and fiction is entirely lost. Although information is easily available, people cannot tell whether anything they see, read, or hear is reliable or not. So, when the next pandemic [or war – JP] comes along, co-operation across society becomes impossible.
I have personally interacted with dozens upon dozens of Russian trolls online. It is an accepted part of modern discourse on social media. But it really shouldn’t be that way. And it becomes even more worrying when that interference increases to shutting down voices on the Internet that are striving to do the right thing for the betterment of the world. Yes, it is a job for me, but it is a job that has come out of my obsession to present facts, to be accurate, to morally argue for a better future.
But it’s not a future that the Kremlin endorses.
This information war is not one I ever imagined myself being a part of. And it turns out I’m on the front line.