Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all toughening their stances on content from Russian state media in response to mounting pressure from European officials to act against pro-Russian propaganda and address the escalating information war in Ukraine and across the internet.
However, there are concerns that a draconian crackdown could have unintended consequences for both platforms and Russian citizens who rely on those services.
Facebook-parent Meta will block access to Russian news organisations RT and Sputnik across the European Union in response to “requests from a number of Governments and the EU to take additional steps in relation to Russian state-controlled media,” Meta’s VP of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said in a tweet Monday.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s head of security policy, previously told reporters Sunday evening that Meta was reviewing requests from various governments to block Russian state media content completely on its platforms. Meta had already complied with the Ukrainian government’s request and is now “completely blocking the ability of a number of Russian state-owned media entities to broadcast into Ukraine,” Gleicher added.
On Monday, Twitter announced that any link shared by a user to the website of a Russian state media organisation would automatically be labelled as “linking to a Russia state-affiliated media website.” Additionally, Twitter intends to “reduce the visibility and amplification of this content site-wide, regardless of its source,” according to Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy.
YouTube announced over the weekend that it had blocked Russian state media in Ukraine, including RT — though a CNN review Monday discovered that YouTube continues to allow Ukrainian IP addresses to access content from RT’s Arabic and Spanish-language channels, each of which has approximately 6 million subscribers. (A request for comment from YouTube was not immediately returned.)
Additionally, YouTube announced on Saturday that as part of its effort to restrict access to RT and other Russian state-run media on its platform, it would “significantly restrict recommendations to these channels.” Gleicher stated on Sunday that Meta has also imposed algorithmic restrictions on Russian state media, preventing it from appearing as prominently in users’ feeds.
By taking those steps, the platforms appeared to acknowledge public pressure from European Union officials for more assertive action, even as they risk antagonising Russia further. Meta and YouTube previously stated that they would temporarily disable monetization for a number of Russian channels, including RT, but faced pressure to do more.
“Platforms cannot be used as a platform for [Russia’s] war deceptions.”
On Sunday, European Commission leaders met with the CEOs of Google and YouTube to press the companies further — with some, such as Commissioner Thierry Breton, drawing parallels between the Russian invasion and the United States’ Jan. 6 Capitol riots.
“Online platforms took unprecedented steps in the aftermath of the Capitol Hill attacks,” Breton tweeted Sunday, alongside images of the virtual meeting. “Surely, Russian war #propaganda is deserving of at least the same level of retaliation.”
Vera Jourova, European Union Vice President, said in a statement that she appreciated some of Alphabet’s moves, the parent company of Google and YouTube, and that she would maintain contact with the company.
“I anticipate that YouTube and Google will redouble their efforts to combat Russian war propaganda,” Jourova said. “Because Russia has weaponized information, platforms cannot be used to spread its war lies.”
It is unknown whether EC officials have met with other social media CEOs in a similar manner or whether similar meetings are planned. According to Charles Manoury, a spokesperson for the European Commission, officials were “exploring various options” for coordinating with online platforms.
When asked whether Twitter had met with EC officials, Twitter declined to comment; Meta did not respond to a request for comment. Alphabet declined multiple requests for comment on Sunday’s meeting.
Russia retaliates against Big Tech
While western officials press technology companies to take a tougher stance, Russia has taken the opposite tack.
The Russian government has already urged YouTube to lift its restrictions on Russian state media channels and has taken steps to “partially restrict” access to Facebook for the purpose of “fact-checking and labelling” several Russian news outlets. Gleicher told reporters on Sunday that, for the time being, Meta’s platforms appear to be accessible to Russian users, though the company is aware of indications that Russia may “throttle our platforms in-country.”
Russia also demanded on Monday that TikTok censor content about the Ukraine war and “related political content,” claiming that much of it had a “clear anti-Russian tone.” TikTok did not respond to a request for comment immediately.
In light of Russia’s pressure, tech platforms require increased support from US and European government officials in order to resist authoritarian regimes, Alina Polyakova, CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a transatlantic think tank, said Monday at a Washington conference.
Recent Russian legislation aimed at bringing foreign technology companies even closer to the country’s legal jurisdiction could make it significantly more difficult for western platforms to continue doing business in the country, Polyakova said. And as Russia continues to levy fines and threaten to restrict those companies for failing to remove false information, those platforms are forced to make a difficult choice that could ultimately affect everyday Russians and their ability to protest the Kremlin.
“YouTube, for example, has been the only outlet for Russian opposition voices, or independent voices, in a highly state-controlled environment,” Polyakova explained. “Do these companies simply withdraw and effectively cede control of this information environment to the authoritarian state?” Firms are in an extremely difficult situation.”
This predicament transcends the major social media platforms. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook on Friday, pleading with him to “cease supplying Apple services and products to the Russian Federation” and requesting that Apple block the country’s app store. Apple did not respond immediately to a request for comment.