Big Tech caught in information war between west and Russia

Western governments are pushing for social media companies to remove Russian state-backed media from their platforms, as Big Tech is dragged into the information war that has raged following President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Meta-owned Facebook and Google’s YouTube are among those facing calls from the EU to remove content from Russia Today, Sputnik and other Kremlin-backed outlets in an effort to throttle pro-Russia propaganda.

Attempts by the same companies to remove misinformation and employ fact checks have been met with accusations of censorship from Russia, which has begun to restrict access to Facebook in the country and leveling threats to do the same at YouTube.

The claims and counterclaims over the war in Ukraine have placed Silicon Valley companies in the middle of a geopolitical battle for influence, given their position as gatekeepers to information seen by billions of consumers.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said on Sunday that she planned to “ban in the EU the Kremlin’s media machine”, although it is unclear how exactly the policy will be enforced. “We are developing tools to ban their toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe,” she said.

The prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have signed a joint letter directed to the heads of Meta, Google, YouTube and Twitter demanding a clampdown on Russian state media on their platforms.

Both YouTube and Facebook have blocked access in Ukraine to RT and several other state-backed outlets, following a request from the Ukrainian government.

The platforms have also paused the ability for Russian state media channels to run advertisements on their platforms or to make money from ads that run alongside the content that they themselves create.

Facebook’s head of security policy Nathanial Gleicher told reporters on Sunday evening that the company had now received similar requests for Russian state media bans from “a number of different governments at this point”, and was weighing its next steps. He declined to comment on whether the company would consider a blanket ban globally.

European Commissioner Thierry Breton has urged Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki to consider bans, and to update their terms of service to ensure “war propaganda” never appears as “recommended” content to users, according to a person briefed on the call . Pichai said the latter could be a “good option”, the person added.

Both companies have to report the steps they have taken to tackle misleading propaganda to the commission by Monday evening.

Silicon Valley’s social media platforms, which have cast themselves as politically neutral but committed to democratic free speech, have long struggled to prevent their platforms from being manipulated for information warfare. This includes clandestine activity by troll farms and bots directed by the Russian government, one of the most active actors in the space.

Facebook announced the takedown of a small disinformation campaign late on Sunday that used fictitious personas to spread anti-Ukrainian messaging and was tied to a previous Russian disinformation operation.

The potential removal of state media would mark a new frontier for social media platforms, which have tended to focus more on removing covert operations, rather than any domestic propaganda apparatus.

It also carries the risk Russia will expel European media from Ukraine after it shut down broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Moscow bureau earlier this month in response to Germany’s refusal to let RT broadcast.

RT is available to more than 120mn European viewers, according to its website, and has 6.3mn and 4.6mn followers on Facebook and YouTube pages respectively. Its Spanish language YouTube channel, which has nearly 6mn subscribers, is one of the most watched Spanish YouTube channels, according to researchers at data analysis company Omelas.

Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor in chief, said in a post on the social media app Telegram that the move to ban RT “has NOTHING to do with the goal of stopping the military operation in Ukraine”.

She added: “Or do they think Putin will change his mind about saving the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine or stopping NATO’s spread without RT’s broadcasts in English, French, or Spanish?”

Vera Jourova, a vice-president of the European Commission, said that so far the actions being taken by the platforms were “not enough”, and should include bans as well also ensuring their algorithms boost more trustworthy, rather than provocative content.

In the US, Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Friday wrote letters to Facebook and Google, but also Twitter, TikTok and Telegram calling on them to “assume a heightened posture towards exploitation” of their platform for information operations.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and Facebook’s former chief security officer said on Twitter: “It’s appropriate for American companies to pick sides in geopolitical conflicts, and this should be an easy call.”

Disinformation experts also warn that if the platforms crack down too hard, this too can play into narratives designed to further sow discord.

“Tech firms taking steps to stop promoting RT or Sputnik are laudable as part of their larger strategy to stop promoting conspiratorial content,” said Ben Dubow, founder of Omelas. “But government intervention gives Russia a talking point of the west being no more open to opposing views than they are, while giving the green light to go after the BBC” and other outlets, including domestic opposition outlets.

Alongside other authoritarian governments, Russia has increasingly wielded the threat of penalties such as fines and slowing or shutting access to the platforms in order to get them to restore or restrict content.

Facebook’s Gleicher said that Russia had issued requests to geo-block or hide certain posts, but that the company had refused the request. He declined to comment on the impact of Russia throttling its service in the country.

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