As Russia’s war in Ukraine plays out for the world on social media, big tech platforms are facing increased calls to bar Russian state media from using their platforms to spread propaganda and misinformation.
None of the US-owned tech companies have responded with an outright ban from those outlets. Instead they’ve offered more modest changes: limiting the Kremlin’s reach, labeling more of this content so that people know it originated with the Russian government, and cutting Russian state organs off from whatever ad revenue they were previously making.
The changes are a careful balancing act intended to slow the Kremlin from pumping propaganda into social media feeds without angering Russian officials to the point that they yank their citizens’ access to platforms during a crucial time of war, said Katie Harbath, a former public policy manager for Facebook.
“They’re trying to walk this very fine line, they’re doing this dance,” said Harbath, who now serves as the director of technology and democracy at the International Republican Institute. “We want to stand up to Russia but we also don’t want to get shut down in the country. How far can we push this?”
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, announced Monday it would restrict access to Russia’s RT and Sputnik services in Europe, following a statement by European Union President Ursula von der Leyen over the weekend that officials are working to ban the sites throughout the EU.
The US has not taken similar action or applied sanctions to Russian state media, leaving the American-owned tech companies to wrestle with how to blunt the Kremlin’s reach on their own.
The results have been mixed.
RT and other Russian-state media accounts are still active on Facebook in the US Twitter announced Monday that after seeing more than 45,000 tweets daily from users sharing Russian state-affiliated media links in recent days, it will add labels to content from the Kremlin’s websites . The company also said it would not recommend or direct users to Russian-affiliated websites in its search function.
Over the weekend, the Menlo Park, California-based company announced it was banning ads from Russian state media and had removed a network of 40 fake accounts, pages and groups that published pro-Russian talking points. The network used fictitious persons posing as journalists and experts, but didn’t have much of an audience.
Facebook began labeling state-controlled media outlets in 2020.
Meanwhile, Microsoft announced it wouldn’t display content or ads from RT and Sputnik, or include RT’s apps in its app store. And Google’s YouTube restricted Russian-state media from monetizing the site through ads, although the outlets are still uploading videos every few minutes on the site.
By comparison, the hands-off approach taken by TikTok, a Chinese platform popular in the US for short, funny videos, has allowed pro-Russian propaganda to flourish on its site. The company did not respond to messages seeking comment.
One recent video posted to RT’s TikTok channel features a clip of Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to ex-President Donald Trump who now hosts a podcast with a penchant for misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“Ukraine isn’t even a country. It’s kind of a concept,” Bannon said in the clip, echoing a claim by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “So when we talk about sovereignty and self-determination it’s just a corrupt area where the Clintons have turned into a colony where they can steal money.”
Already, Facebook’s efforts to limit Russian state media’s reach have drawn ire from Russian officials. Last week, Meta officials said they had rebuffed Russia’s request to stop fact-checking or labeling posts made by Russian state media. Kremlin officials responded by restricting access to Facebook.
The company has also denied requests from Ukrainian officials who have asked Meta to remove access to its platforms in Russia. The move would prevent everyday Russians from using the platforms to learn about the war, voice their views or organize protests, according to Nick Clegg, recently named the company’s vice president of global affairs
“We believe turning off our services would silence important expression at a crucial time,” Clegg wrote on Twitter Sunday.
More aggressive labeling of state media and moves to de-emphasize their content online might help reduce the spread of harmful material without cutting off a key information source, said Alexandra Givens, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based non- profit.
“These platforms are a way for dissidents to organize and push back,” Givens said. “The clearest indication of that is the regime has been trying to shut down access to Facebook and Twitter.”
Russia has spent years creating its sprawling propaganda apparatus, which boasts dozens of sites that target millions of people in different languages. That preparation is making it hard for any tech company to mount a rapid response, said Graham Shellenberger at Miburo Solutions, a firm that tracks misinformation and influence campaigns.
“This is a system that has been built over 10 years, especially when it comes to Ukraine,” Shellenberger said. “They’ve created the channels, they’ve created the messengers. And all the sudden now, we’re starting to take action against it.”
Redfish, a Facebook page that is labeled as Russian-state controlled media, has built up a mostly US and liberal-leaning audience of more than 800,000 followers over the years.
The page has in recent days posted anti-US sentiment and sought to downplay Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “military operation” and dedicating multiple posts to highlighting anti-war protests across Russia.
One Facebook post also used a picture of a map to highlight airstrikes in other parts of the world.
“Don’t let the mainstream media’s Eurocentrism dictate your moral support for victims of war,” the post read.
Last week, US Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia sent letters to Google, Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter urging them to curb such Russian influence campaigns on their websites.
“In addition to Russia’s established use of influence operations as a tool of strategic influence, information warfare constitutes an integral part of Russian military doctrine,” Warner wrote.
Klepper reported from Providence, RI
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.