After years of equivocating on the sidelines as social media platforms were used to propagate Russian propaganda and cultivate audiences for its media mouthpieces, they finally took steps to staunch the firehose of disinformation. But why did it take the invasion of a democratic European country to finally see meaningful action from billion-dollar companies like Meta/Facebook, Google, TikTok, Twitter and Microsoft?
Many laud the decision by social media platforms to deny Russian state media and officials the use of their platforms as punishment for Russia’s illegal war with its democratic neighbor, yet they could and should do more. We’ve known for years that information warfare is an explicit part of Russia’s military doctrine, yet its state media channels amassed millions of followers on YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels.
Information warfare is a central element of Russia’s offensive, which is why it launched a deadly rocket attack on a Kyiv TV tower and cyberattacks against media and government websites in Ukraine. Moscow has censored local independent news outlets, limited access to Facebook and Twitter and is trying to coerce global tech firms into complying with its sovereign internet law, which would require them to localize data and staff in the country. The Russian body responsible for censorship, Roskomnadzor, sent a demand to Wikipedia to remove a page about the invasion and warned Facebook to stop fact-checking, even as it has clamped down on independent media inside Russia.
The domestic censorship in Russia is one reason why the request by Ukraine to shut down the Russia country-level domain name system is dangerous and misplaced. It would risk further isolating independent media and civil society in the country and lead to further fragmentation of the internet.
It is not the free and open internet that is responsible for enabling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s information operations but the tech platform companies themselves that have allowed his propaganda to flourish even as he has censored free expression in his own country.
Yet Russian state media and government accounts are still allowed to have accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (though they’ve restricted access to them in Europe and Ukraine), meaning they continue to battle for global public opinion. Given that these same social media companies deplatformed former President Donald Trump following the Jan. 6 insurrection, it’s ironic that RT, Sputnik and other Russian state accounts remain on these platforms despite the country’s invasion of a democratic country.
And the fact that Facebook, Google and Twitter demonetized these accounts begs the question why they were allowed to earn millions of dollars in the first place. And RT and Sputnik are only the most visible part of Moscow’s vast propaganda machine, as the graphic below illustrates.
The world’s most ubiquitous platforms have not used an available and powerful database to disrupt terrorism, to remove content glorifying and promoting what Ukrainian leaders are calling Russia’s state-sponsored terrorism. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) is an industry-led body that coordinates removal of terrorist and violent extremist content across the internet. It oversees a shared database of digital fingerprints corresponding to visual content removed by a member company that can be used by other members to identify and remove the same content on their platforms. The database is only to be used to flag terrorist or violent extremist content, but the GIFCT could decide to include state-sponsored terrorism (especially if it’s affiliated government members pressured them to do so) or even disinformation.
The fact that these tech companies are once again winging it as they respond to a massive geopolitical crisis (think Afghanistan and the takeover by the Taliban last year), they must proactively and urgently consider how their policies allow authoritarian leaders in non-European countries to profit from the openness of their platforms.
While some Western media coverage of the conflict in Ukraine has revealed the “ignorance, arrogance and racism” of the media, the fact that several of these billion-dollar platforms have exacerbated conflict around the world and repeatedly failed to stave the growing scourge of state-sponsored information operations is illustrative of the same bias and injustice. Facebook, with 90 percent of its users outside of North America, has only devoted a fraction of its time to labelling and removing disinformation outside of the United States.
Why are leaders in Russia, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few of the worst offenders) allowed to use American social media platforms to propagandize when they block many of those same platforms in their own countries? It is way past time for social media companies to ban world leaders who engage in information warfare, censorship and propagandize from state media mouthpieces on their platforms.
Courtney Radsch is senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and a fellow at UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy. She is the U.S. adviser for ARTICLE19 and the author of Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism: Digital Dissidence and Political Change.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.