Big Tech caught in the information war between the West and Russia


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

Facebook, owned by Meta, and Google’s YouTube are among those facing EU calls to remove content from Russia Today, Sputnik and other Kremlin-backed outlets in a bid to stifle propaganda pro-Russian.

Attempts by the same companies to suppress misinformation and use fact checks have been met with accusations of censorship from Russia, which has begun restricting access to Facebook in the country and threatening to do the same on YouTube.

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

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

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

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

The platforms also suspended the ability for Russian state media channels to run ads on their platforms or earn money from ads that accompany content they create themselves.

Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, told reporters late Sunday that the company has now received similar requests to ban Russian state media from “a number of different governments in this stage,” and weighed his next steps. He declined to say whether the company would consider a blanket ban globally.

The movements have extended beyond the social media sector. Google decided on Sunday to block downloads of the RT application on Ukrainian territory. Microsoft went further on Monday, blocking downloads of the RT app on its Windows app store worldwide, as well as RT and Sputnik content from its MSN website, citing the EU decision.

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton has urged Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki to consider bans and 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 might be a “good option,” the person added.

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

Twitter, which last week suspended advertising in Russia and Ukraine, said Monday it would label content from Russian state-affiliated media websites, something Facebook and YouTube have done for several years. He added that he plans to add labeling for state-backed media in other countries in the coming weeks. Last week, Twitter said it was aware it was “restricted for certain people in Russia”.

Silicon Valley social media platforms, which have presented themselves as politically neutral but committed to democratic freedom of expression, have long struggled to prevent their platforms from being manipulated for information warfare purposes. This includes the clandestine activity of troll and robot farms run by the Russian government, one of the most active players in space.

Facebook on Sunday evening announced the removal of a small disinformation campaign that used fictional characters to spread anti-Ukrainian messages and was linked 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 suppressing covert operations, rather than any domestic propaganda apparatus.

It also carries the risk that Russia will kick European media out of Ukraine after closing the Moscow office of broadcaster Deutsche Welle earlier this month in response to Germany’s refusal to let RT broadcast.

RT is accessible to more than 120 million European viewers, according to its website, and has 6.3 million and 4.6 million subscribers on Facebook and YouTube pages respectively. His Spanish-language YouTube channel, which has nearly 6 million subscribers, is one of the most-watched Spanish YouTube channels, according to researchers at data analytics firm Omelas.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, said in a post on the social media app Telegram that the decision 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 the spread of NATO without RT’s broadcasts in English, French or Spanish?”

Vera Jourova, vice-president of the European Commission, said that so far the measures taken by social platforms were “not sufficient” and should include bans as well as ensuring that their algorithms stimulate more reliable content rather how provocative.

In the United States, Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote letters on Friday to Facebook and Google, as well as Twitter, TikTok and Telegram, calling on them to “take a heightened stance towards operation” of their information operations platform. .

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former Facebook security chief, said on Twitter“It’s appropriate for American companies to choose sides in geopolitical disputes, and it should be an easy choice.”

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

“Tech companies that take action to stop promoting RT or Sputnik are commendable as part of their broader strategy to stop promoting conspiratorial content,” said Ben Dubow, founder of Omelas. “But government intervention gives Russia a talking point that the West is no more open to opposing views than they are, while giving the green light to go after the BBC” and to other media, including national opposition media.

Along with other authoritarian governments, Russia has increasingly threatened sanctions such as fines and slowing or closing access to platforms in order to get them to restore or restrict content.

Facebook’s Gleicher said Russia issued requests to geo-block or hide certain posts, but the company denied the request. He declined to comment on the impact of Russia’s limitation of his service in the country.

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