For the first time in the age of social media, a war is raging in Europe. It places a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The political pressure to intervene strongly is growing rapidly.
Companies find the approach to disinformation in particular complicated, which is something they have struggled with for years. Because of the war in Ukraine, Russian state media are now often pointed to, which spread President Putin’s propaganda. They have millions of viewers and followers on Facebook and YouTube.
The measures taken by the American tech giants have so far been limited to the interventions that they have as standard. But those are not enough, according to Vera Jourova, vice president of the European Commission. An echo of the message from the European Union and the US, which have announced tough financial sanctions against Moscow.
Banned from platforms
The Financial Times writes that the prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have jointly sent a letter to Meta, Google, YouTube and Twitter asking them to do something about Russian propaganda. The call comes on top of pressure from the EU. For example, European Commissioner Thierry Breton some photos on twitter last nightr. He and colleague Jourova had an online conversation with the CEOs of Google and YouTube.
His message to them: Russian war propaganda warrants a similar response from online platforms as the storming of the US Capitol. That prompted Twitter, Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) and YouTube to ban then-President Trump from their platforms.
A source told the Financial Times that in yesterday’s conversation, Breton asked Google and YouTube, among other things, to consider banning channels from their platforms. He is presumably referring to channels of Russian state media. Tonight, the tech companies must report on the steps they are taking.
One of the photos shows the dejected faces of Sundar Pichai (CEO Google, bottom left) and Susan Wojcicki (CEO YouTube, top right):
In any case, it is in line with what President Urusla von der Leyen of the European Commission said yesterday. “State media Russia Today and Sputnik will no longer be able to spread the lies that justify Putin’s war and sow divisions.” It is still unclear how that should happen and what is expected from social media.
If it comes to that, it will certainly go far beyond what has been done so far. For example, it is no longer possible for Russian state media to advertise on Facebook and Instagram or to monetize their content through advertising (in this blog post parent company Meta keeps an overview of all measures).
In addition, their messages are fact-checked and it is stated that they are state media. The Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine thanked Meta for the actionsbut also called it the “very first step”.
No new accounts
YouTube, part of Google, has made it impossible for Russian state media to make money. In Ukraine itself, a number of Russian media, including RT (Russia Today), can no longer be viewed on YouTube and Facebook.
Also, videos from “reliable news sources” are getting prominent places and “hundreds of channels and thousands of videos” have already been removed (on Twitter contains an overview of all measures). Twitter has disabled ads in Ukraine and Russia and no new accounts can be created from Russia.
Former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, now a top executive at Meta, explained why Facebook and Instagram are not being taken offline in Russia:
If the Russian state media are actually banned from the platforms, the question is how Russia will respond. Will the platforms be taken offline? Access to Twitter and Facebook was already restricted there this weekend. At the same time, Facebook’s parent company Meta reported ignoring an order to stop fact-checking state media.
New Russian legislation also makes it possible to hit tech companies with fines, arrests or the blocking of their services, The New York Times reported on Saturday. Online platforms have to deal with a delicate balance: on the one hand, the Western call for tough action and, on the other, the possible consequences for their services in Russia.
Is there an imminent danger? Then action must be taken.
“In the short term, platforms must act,” says professor of digital conflict resolution Pietro Ortolani. “Is there an acute danger? Then action must be taken.” From a policy point of view, he finds the war in Ukraine comparable to the storming of the Capitol: it justifies taking heavy measures, such as the deletion of accounts or channels.
Internet fragmented further
Ortolani notes, however, that it is now high time for a long-term discussion: this war can be a catalyst for a development that has been going on in Russia for some time: the creation of its own internet. For years they have had alternatives to well-known platforms such as Facebook (VKontakte) and Google (Yandex).
“If Western tech companies take tough measures, it could mean their end in Russia, further fragmenting the internet.” Governments should think carefully about the consequences of this, he believes.