The Australian government has asked Facebook, Twitter, Google and other digital platforms to block content generated by Russian state media to curb “disinformation in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.
Australia’s communications minister, Paul Fletcher, wrote on Thursday to Meta, which runs Facebook and Instagram, and a range of other digital platforms, asking them to take action “as a priority to suspend the dissemination on your platform[s] in Australia of content generated by Russian state media organisations”.
The other recipients are Apple, TikTok, Twitter, Snap Inc, Reddit, Google and Microsoft.
Fletcher cited “a significant volume of such content promoting violence, extremism and disinformation in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.
Australia is not the first government to make the request, with the European Union’s own ban on Russian state media prompting a number of platforms to crack down on Kremlin-backed news outlets RT and Sputnik.
“In light of the exceptional circumstances that are unfolding in Ukraine, and in the interests of protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Australian government asks that [your platform] takes such action in respect of content disseminated on your platform[s] in Australia,” Fletcher wrote on Thursday.
“I would be grateful to receive your early advice as to the steps you have taken to achieve this outcome.”
Fletcher noted that a number of platforms had taken action to block such services and content in the United States and Europe.
He also pointed to the recent decisions by Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service and Foxtel to suspended the broadcast of Russia Today and NTV.
“Given the current actions of the Russian government, and the lack of genuinely independent Russian media, these actions are responsible and appropriate,” the Australian minister wrote.
Meta said the company was “reviewing the request from the Australian government”.
“In the meantime, we will continue to label and fact check these outlets as well as prohibit ads and demonetize their accounts globally, including in Australia,” a spokesperson said.
It is understood Meta wrote to Fletcher on Wednesday outlining the steps it was taking and offering to set up a meeting to discuss any concerns, but no such meeting was requested.
Snap said on Wednesday its Discover content platform featured material from only verified media partners and creators “and we have never allowed Russian state media to distribute content”.
Earlier this week, Google said it was blocking YouTube channels connected to RT and Sputnik across Europe. Google also said it had “removed hundreds of channels and thousands of videos” for violating community guidelines “including a number of channels engaging in coordinated deceptive practices”.
The Russian embassy in Canberra was also contacted for comment.
US accuses Kremlin of ‘assault on media freedom and truth’
Earlier, the US state department accused the Kremlin of “a full assault on media freedom and the truth”, after Russia’s prosecutor general ordered the country’s communications authority to restrict access to the independent outlets Radio Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd TV.
The Duma – Russia’s parliament – is scheduled to meet on Friday to debate a new law against “spreading disinformation about the armed forces of the Russian Federation in any military conflicts”, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The Kremlin has attempted to defend what it calls a “special military operation” to “demilitarise” Ukraine, launched last week. Russia’s media regulator has already banned the use of the words “war”, “attack” and “invasion”.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Sunday that RT and Sputnik would “no longer be able to spread their lies to justify [Vladimir] Putin’s war and to sow division in our union”.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, had earlier branded Putin as “a thug” and called for Russia to be treated as a pariah state over the invasion.
Australia was one of 141 states to vote in favour of a resolution deploring Russia’s actions at a special session of the UN general assembly late on Wednesday.
Russia was joined by only four other countries – Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea – in voting against the condemnation. China and India were among 35 states to abstain.
Separately, nearly 40 countries including Australia and the UK have formally referred reports of atrocities committed in Ukraine to the international criminal court (ICC).
The ICC prosecutor announced on Thursday he was launching an investigation into “any past and present allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide committed on any part of the territory of Ukraine by any person”.
Ukraine’s emergency services report that more than 350 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and more than 2,000 injured, while hundreds of structures including transport facilities, hospitals, kindergartens and homes have been destroyed.
The UN refugee agency estimates more than 1 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last week.
Australia has participated in expanding rounds of international sanctions against Russia and has committed $70m to provide Ukraine with missiles and ammunition.
On Wednesday, a Royal Australian Air Force Globemaster III loaded with “critical military equipment and medical supplies” left the Richmond base, northwest of Sydney, bound for Europe.
Amid heightened tensions, the area outside the Russia embassy in Canberra was cordoned off for more than five hours on Thursday as police investigated the posting of suspicious packages to the diplomatic mission.
Australian Capital Territory Policing said the contents of one of the packages were found to be safe, but the contents of a second package required “further analysis”.
The Australian National University said on Thursday it was “suspending all ties and activities with Russian institutions, indefinitely and with immediate effect”. The ANU said it stood “in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their defence of sovereignty and freedom” and urged institutions across Australia to condemn Putin’s “unprovoked aggression”.