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Tech's crackdown on Russian propaganda is a geopolitical high-wire act

The main newsroom of Russian outlet Sputnik News in Moscow on April 27, 2018.
Mladen Antonov
/
AFP via Getty Images
The main newsroom of Russian outlet Sputnik News in Moscow on April 27, 2018.

Updated March 2, 2022 at 12:35 PM ET

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is forcing Silicon Valley giants into a geopolitical high-wire act they have long tried to avoid.

From Facebook and Google to Apple and Microsoft, platforms have moved to limit the reach of Kremlin-controlled media outlets.

Google has booted Russian state media from its Google News service. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are making posts from Kremlin-affiliated news outlets harder to find. TikTok, YouTube and Facebook are blocking two of the biggest outlets, RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and Sputnik News, across Europe. Apple, Google and Microsoft have pulled their apps from their app stores.

But these actions run the risk of angering President Vladimir Putin so much that the platforms themselves get kicked out of Russia.

Tech companies are doing "a delicate dance" as their services have become a key battleground in the war in Ukraine, said Katie Harbath, a former public policy director at Facebook now at the International Republican Institute.

On one hand, the companies don't want to let Russia use their platforms to amplify propaganda and disinformation.

But on the other, "they want to make sure their tools remain available in both Russia and Ukraine, because they are some of the few ones that activists have in order to organize and to get their messages out that are not controlled by the Russian government," Harbath said.

Facebook executive says remaining online in Russia is a top priority

On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Facebook parent company Meta, described the industry's efforts to curb the reach of Russian state media as "exceptional measures" taken in response to "a highly exceptional and tragic state of affairs."

He also characterized the decisions as "a difficult balancing trick." Ordinary Russians are using Meta's services, which also include WhatsApp, to get information, organize protests, speak out against the war and communicate with friends and family, he said.

That's why Meta disagrees with calls from Ukraine's government to cut off its services inside Russia, he said.

"In the long run, the thing that really undermines propaganda is counter speech," he said.

The threat of a shutdown in Russia is real. Last week, the country's internet regulator said it would limit access to Facebook in response to what it described as "censorship" of state media outlets. Meta said the throttling was in retaliation for its refusal to remove fact-checks on false or misleading posts from Russian state media.

Clegg said the Russian government's actions were making it harder for people inside Russia to see videos on Facebook and Instagram. "The degradation of the service is definitely discernible," he said.

Over the weekend, Twitter said its service was also being restricted in the country. Russia has previously throttled Twitter, and fined Meta and Google, for not taking down posts the government said were illegal.

On Tuesday, Russia's internet regulator demanded that Meta, YouTube and TikTok lift their blocks on RT and Sputnik in Europe, saying they amounted to open censorship.

The tech companies don't disclose how many of Russia's estimated 113 million internet users are on their services. A poll from the independent Levada Center last year found YouTube was the most popular foreign internet platform in Russia, with 35% of respondents saying they used it. The poll found 31% of respondents said they used Instagram, 14% TikTok, 9% Facebook and 3% Twitter.

Russian state media broadcasts propaganda to millions of followers

Even as tech companies face Russia's ire, they are also under pressure from Western governments and civil society groups to act aggressively against Russian propaganda and disinformation.

Major social media platforms have become quicker and more effective at spotting and removing Russian interference efforts, in contrast to how they were caught off-guard during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Over the weekend, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter took down accounts involved in a Russian-linked disinformation campaign and a separate hacking attack on prominent Ukrainians.

But those cloak-and-dagger tactics are only part of Russia's playbook, said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former FBI special agent who has long tracked Russia's influence operations.

He said state-backed outlets like RT and Sputnik play key roles in creating and disseminating pro-Kremlin propaganda, which can then be further seeded across the internet by fake accounts, bots and online trolls.

"So if you really want to dent their ability to shape perceptions, you need to eliminate the entire ecosystem, or mute it to some degree," he said.

State media has played an important role in promoting the Kremlin's version of events in Ukraine to an international audience of millions, not only on internet platforms including Facebook and YouTube, but also on TV and radio stations in many countries.

They've echoed Putin's pretexts for the invasion, including false allegations that Ukraine is conducting a genocide against Russian speakers and that NATO is to blame for the conflict, said Nina Jankowicz of the Wilson Center.

"State-sponsored media like RT and Sputnik have been dehumanizing Ukrainians for the past eight years," giving support to Putin's justification for attacking Ukraine, she said.

Since the invasion, RT, Sputnik and other state media outlets have continued to push the Kremlin's framing that rather than an unprovoked invasion, its troops are conducting a "special operation" in response to Ukrainian aggression.

Russian authorities have also clamped down on critical coverage of the war internally. This week, they blocked two domestic media outlets, the Echo of Moscow radio station and TV Rain, accusing them of providing deliberately false information. Both outlets reject the accusations.

The first move tech companies made against Russian state media outlets after Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday was to cut them off from their ad tools, so that RT and its peers cannot make money off their online content.

But profit is not the main purpose of propaganda.

"The Kremlin is happy to operate RT bureaus around the world at a loss because they're not in it for revenue, they're in it for the propaganda value," said Nu Wexler, a former communications staffer at Twitter, Facebook and Google.

Soon, calls came to do more. Over the weekend, Google and Meta said they were blocking Kremlin-backed media outlets in Ukraine at the request of the government there.

Then on Sunday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a ban on RT and Sputnik within the European Union so they "will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin's war." Meta, TikTok, Google and Microsoft quickly said they were complying.

Twitter said on Wednesday it too will block RT and Sputnik accounts in Europe to comply with the sanctions.

Meta's Clegg says the company is reviewing requests from countries outside of Europe to block the channels elsewhere.

The restrictions continued to escalate this week. Twitter and Facebook said they would start labeling posts with links to Russian state media stories, warning people about the source of information before letting them share or click.

Google is limiting recommendations to state media outlets across its platforms. Microsoft is demoting RT and Sputnik in search results on Bing. Netflix said it's refusing to follow a Russian law requiring it to stream state TV channels in Russia starting on Tuesday.

RT's deputy editor in chief Anna Belkina said in a statement on Tuesday that critics of the outlet had not "pointed to a single example, a single grain of evidence that what RT has reported over these days, and continues to report, is not true."

Sputnik issued its own statement, saying, "Any restrictions on members of the press are blatant censorship and the dirtiest example of freedom of speech violations."

Tech companies "have to choose" sides, Russia expert says

As their response to Russia has escalated, the tech giants have made clear they see clamping down on state media as a response to an unprecedented situation, and emphasized they're acting at the behest of governments.

"We're a company, not a government," Clegg told reporters repeatedly on Tuesday's call.

But observers say it is becoming increasingly difficult for tech companies to strike a balance between their own stated commitment to democratic ideals and the demands of authoritarian regimes around the world.

"There's three internets now. There's China's, there's the internet of the European Union and the U.S., and then there's distorted internets in between," in countries like Russia, Watts said.

"The idea of being a global company in the tech space is dead," he said. "They have to choose."

Editor's note: Meta pays NPR to license NPR content. Apple and Microsoft are among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.