Reviews | Social Media Platforms Should Stop Activating Russia’s ‘Z’ Campaign
I’m not talking about the QAnon conspiracy (although all of the above applies to it). I’m talking about “Z,” the Kremlin-amplified propaganda campaign in Eastern Europe to drum up support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s murderous war in Ukraine. The Z campaign began in the days following the invasion. It has now reached tens of millions of people on social media platforms. It is the rallying symbol of the Russian war machine and an effective weapon in information warfare.
Amazingly, the QAnon conspiracy has been banned from promotion on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter. But from now on, Z keep growing.
Like QAnon, the Z campaign relies on lies to promote us versus them antagonism. The Russian account claims that Ukraine – whose elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish – is ruled by the Nazis. This grotesque mythology depicts NATO, the European Union and the United States as the great powers that support evildoers who kill innocent people and threaten Russia. Like QAnon, whose messages allegedly come from an omniscient Washington insider known only as “Q”, Z embraces a personality cult strongman as its leader. Exterior similarity of Z with the swastika is particularly insidious.
The origins of Z as a viral conspiracy are obscure. It started with the images of Russian military vehicles in Ukraine clearly marked with the letter “Z”, apparently a military identification code distinguish Russian vehicles from those operated by the Ukrainian military. The letter does not exist in the Cyrillic alphabet. But the Kremlin pretend now that it means “victory” – because the phonetic rendering of Russian “for victory” in the Latin alphabet begins with Z.
The propaganda value of the symbol quickly became apparent. Russian state media produces smooth videos featuring Z and started selling Z-themed products. school children posed on Instagram with colorful Z designs. Dozen of Z hashtags has millions of views on social networks. Even on instagram and Twitterwho are now stuck in Russia, Kremlin-aligned accounts keep posting Propaganda Z.
Like QAnon, Z has become a symbol of resentment and a messianic faith that his believers will triumph. But Z is much worse. Its main purpose is to justify a horrible war. It has become a serious information weapon directed not only at Russian-speaking communities but also increasingly in many other languages.
Despite blocking Instagram and Twitter in Russia, the Russian government own accounts continue to Publish across both platforms in Russian – reaching people inside Russia bypassing the bloc as well as the very large Russian-speaking communities in Eastern Europe. Although Big Tech is often reluctant to share meaningful data on the extent of malicious content on their services, our research suggests widespread Z distribution – including Z-themed hashtags on Instagram and TikTok only. (A representative for Meta, Instagram’s parent company, declined to comment on the filing. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.)
Starting in 2017, the QAnon conspiracy also began to spread like wildfire on Big Tech social media platforms. Recommendation algorithms programmed to capture the attention of users actively encouraged it precisely because it was sensationalist and incendiary. At its peak, 1 in 5 Americans were prepared to believe that a secret cabal of blood-drinking, Satan-worshipping pedophiles held power in the United States. The plot fueled savage acts of violence, including the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Then Big Tech companies backtracked. Google blocked QAnon apps from the Play Store to spread “harmful information”. Facebook announcement this would remove accounts linked to “militarized social movements”. YouTube tracking days later, pulling videos with “conspiracy theories that have been used to justify violence in the real world”. ICT Tac beaten down QAnon for promoting misinformation. Twitter did the same – pulling 70,000 QAnon accounts. Mentions of QAnon on major digital media platforms dramatically droppedreducing audiences by more than half in a matter of days.
Big Tech, in short, is responsible for both making and destroying QAnon.
Z violates all established company policies for dealing with QAnon. And yet Z continues to spread across all of these platforms. The big difference is that Z is several times more dangerous than QAnon.
So why are we blocking Putin’s banks and oil but not his digital weaponry? One answer might be that Big Tech companies are overwhelmed by the demands of information warfare. This is partly because they have not invested in adequate product warranties in languages other than English – a terrible risk that is now costing us all dearly. They may simply not have built the technical systems necessary to immediately stop the promotion of Z. But that’s no excuse for the lack of a clear policy. They have plenty of money to solve whatever problem they choose to solve.
It’s bizarre to apply rules against violent conspiracies in the United States and then give the Kremlin a pass for something far worse. The moral lines of this conflict are crystal clear. Big Tech companies need to act.