The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has become a watershed moment in geopolitics for some of the world’s most powerful digital corporations, as their platforms have become significant battlegrounds in a parallel information war, and their information and operations have become critical linkages in the struggle.
Google, Meta, Twitter, Telegram, and other companies have been grappling with how to use that influence in the last several days, stuck amid rising demands from Ukrainian, Russian, European Union, and US officials.
Ukraine’s authorities appealed with Apple, Meta, and Google on Friday to limit their operations in Russia. Then Google and Meta, which owns Facebook, stopped offering ads on their services to Russian state-run press. Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, also met with top European Union officials to discuss ways to improve the situation and reduce the information that russia receives.
Simultaneously, Telegram, a popular messaging service in Russia and Ukraine, tried to shut down war-related networks due to widespread propaganda. To combat war propaganda, Twitter announced this week that all postings sharing information to Russian state-affiliated news sources would be labeled, and Meta and YouTube have said they will block access to certain of those sources across the European Union.
The conflict provides an opportunity for numerous businesses, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, to repair their reputations after being questioned in recent years about privacy, market dominance, and how they distribute toxic and divisive information. They have an opportunity to demonstrate that they can utilize technology for good in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Arab Spring in 2011, when social media brought activists together and was hailed as a democratic tool.
However, IT firms must make difficult decisions. Any blunders might be costly, giving new impetus to moves in Europe and the United States to regulate their firms or even prompting Russia to outright prohibit them.
Employees claim that executives within the organizations are deciding on what to do. If Google, Meta, Twitter, as well as other companies take the steps but not others, they risk being criticized of just doing too little and appearing half-hearted. However, restricting access to too many services and information risks isolating ordinary Russians from the internet conversations that might combat state-sponsored misinformation.
“Such industries need all of the rewards of monopolizing the world’s communication channels but without the obligation of becoming entangled in global politics and needing pick sides,” said Yael Eisenstat, an associate at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles who previously led Facebook’s election integrity operations. She claims that tech businesses are “in a no-win condition in the presence of an international crisis” in numerous respects
According to Marietje Schaake, a tech policy specialist and former member of the European Parliament, many corporations have moved cautiously. Last Monday, Google and Meta stopped Russian state media from selling ads on their sites, but not the outlets, as many Western governments had asked.
The corporations have taken further actions as the situation has escalated. Google’s Maps division stopped displaying traffic statistics within Ukraine on Sunday, citing fears that it could put people in danger by revealing where they were congregating. Facebook confirmed the removal of a pro-Kremlin influence effort as well as a separate hacking campaign aimed at its Ukrainian users.
To make users aware of the information sources, Twitter began tagging all tweets including references to Russian state-affiliated news sources on Monday. Users have tweeted links to state-affiliated media roughly 45,000 times each day since the war in Ukraine began, according to the business.
The efforts, according to Ms. Schaake, who is now the international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, are insufficient. She stated that the corporations must restrict Russian propaganda outlets and set clearer policies regarding their human rights and democracy principles that can be implemented outside of Russia.
“The high-pressure interventions also highlight what hasn’t been done in a long time,” she said.
Others cautioned that if the sites were restricted in Russia, it would have terrible effects. “It’s the most essential forum for public debate about what’s happening on,” Russian journalist and censorship specialist Andrei Soldatov remarked. “Blocking Russian nationals’ access to Facebook would not be seen as a good indication.”
Google stated that it is still monitoring the situation in Ukraine, while Twitter stated that it takes its part in the crisis seriously. Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
The experience of Telegram exemplifies the contrasting tensions. The app is widely used in Russia and Ukraine to share war-related photographs, videos, and information. However, it has also become a hotbed for war propaganda, such as dubious battlefield photographs.
On Sunday, Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, announced to his more than 600,000 followers that he was contemplating shutting some global conflict channels in Ukraine and Russia because they could exacerbate the conflict and foment racial violence.
Users expressed concern, stating they rely on Telegram for unbiased information. Mr. Durov changed his mind less than an hour later.
“Many users requested that we not disable Telegram channels during the conflict because we are their sole source of information,” he added. A request for comment from Telegram was not returned.
According to two staff members who were not permitted to talk publicly, the situation inside Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, has been “chaotic” due to the extent of Russian disinformation on its platforms. According to the two employees, Russian professionals on Meta’s security team, which finds and eliminates state-sponsored disinformation from Facebook and Instagram, have been working tirelessly and talking with Twitter, YouTube, and other firms about their findings.
Sputnik and Russia Presently, two of Russia’s main state-run media outlets, have long disputed whether to restrict their posts on Meta’s platforms or mark them so that their source is plainly stated. As shown in a January study from the State Department, Russia Today and Sputnik are “important elements in Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.”
Meta executives had rejected the charges, claiming that they would enrage Russia, according to the employees. However, once the battle broke out, Meta’s global relations director, Nick Clegg, declared on Monday that the business would restrict access to Russia Today and Sputnik throughout the European Union.
Governments are now making two types of war-related demands on technology companies.
Russia is putting growing pressure on them to filter social media posts and other forms of information flow within the country. Moscow has already imposed severe restrictions on Facebook and Twitter, with YouTube being the next target. On Monday, Russia ordered that Google remove all war-related ads from its platform. This came after a directive on Sunday to relax limitations on pro-Kremlin media outlets covering Ukraine, but without specifying how the order would be enforced.
Western governments are pressuring firms to block Russian state media and propaganda at the same time. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland’s governments wrote to Meta, Google, YouTube, and Twitter on Monday, requesting that pro-Kremlin and official government accounts, such as Russia Today and Sputnik, be suspended.
“As totalitarian states strive to militarize the transparency of our communities to threaten peace and stability,” the letter added, “online site providers and tech corporations must take a position.”
Cédric O, France’s digital policy minister, met with Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, on Monday in Paris. Mr. Pichai, Google’s CEO, and Vera Jourova and Thierry Breton, two top European Union politicians, spoke over the phone the day before about combatting Russian state-sponsored disinformation.
On Friday, Ukraine’s vice prime minister urged Meta, Apple, Netflix, and Google to limit access to their services within Russia in order to isolate the country. “We require your help,” he wrote in his message to YouTube. Policymakers in the United States have also asked for a crackdown on Russian propaganda.
Ms. Schaake added, “What impresses me is the power of the platforms is simply so firmly recognized.” “I’ve never seen such a high-level political pressure for firms to do more,” says the author.