Less than a day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Meta’s (previously Facebook’s) chief of security said that the firm will no longer take advertising revenue from Russian state media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik. Twitter announced that it would halt all advertising from Russia and Ukraine. And the following day, 26 February, YouTube secretly announced that it has begun prohibiting a small number of Kremlin-linked media sites from monetizing and advertising on their channels as well.
It was the beginning of a cascade of corporate denials of service attacks: one by one, big social media and technology businesses tightened limitations on the appearance of Russian official media on their platforms. Even large internet infrastructure companies, such as domain registrar Namecheap and internet services provider Cogent, have advised their Russian customers to seek alternative sources of revenue.
The following week saw an increase in corporate activities against Russia. Google has barred Kremlin-backed media sites from purchasing adverts on its search engine, and the Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik news applications have been deleted from the Google Play store in Europe. Apple followed suit with its App Store. Spotify has disabled access to all content created by Russian state media. DirectTV and Roku have ceased broadcasting RT America. Netflix, Snapchat, Microsoft, and a slew of other companies followed suit, eliminating Kremlin-backed media outlets from their platforms in one manner or another.
Since the invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago, we at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center have been watching the response of key technology companies to the conflict. We discovered that companies justified their removal of Kremlin-backed media or reduction of services in Russia by stating that they were doing so to combat the spread of harmful disinformation by Russian actors, to demonstrate their support for Ukraine and opposition to the Russian invasion, and to comply with a wave of new sanctions and government requests.
On 27 February, for example, the European Union imposed a precedent-setting censure forbidding Russia Today and Sputnik from being distributed within the EU. This week, the EU asked search engines to ensure that no search results within the EU contain any reference to or connection to RT or Sputnik content. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s political authorities have encouraged US-based technology corporations to sever any relations with Russia.
Globally, IT businesses looked to be listening. The very public and fast removal of Russian channels from social media was a sea change from years of past content moderation decisions when official requests for removal were typically made with less fanfare and frequently greeted with ire from human rights organizations.
Together, the efforts to remove Russian official propaganda, which finally resulted in RT ceasing all operations in the United States, demonstrate how critical technology companies are in determining what information is transmitted during times of crisis and whose narratives acquire traction. However, without genuine rules and without businesses developing and consistently enforcing their own standards, we can only anticipate increased confusion.
There are no regulations.
When Nick Clegg, Meta’s head of global relations, said that the business will tighten restrictions on Russian official media, he stated that the decision was made at the request of the Ukrainian government. “We have communicated with the Ukrainian authorities, and at their request, we have also banned access to many accounts in Ukraine, including those belonging to some Russian official media companies,” Clegg wrote.
Although the explanation mirrored those of other technology businesses making similar decisions, it was an astounding 180.
For many years, companies like Facebook, YouTube, and DirectTV permitted Russian state actors to use their platforms to distribute propaganda, even if they violated their policies against disinformation.
Nick Clegg stated that Meta’s choices were taken at the request of the Ukrainian government. DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy
And historically, technology companies have been subjected to pressure in response to government inquiries. In 2020, human rights groups accused Facebook of banning posts critical of the Vietnamese government by local legislation, while last year, Facebook and Twitter removed posts critical of the Indian government’s coronavirus activities at the request of the government. When it comes to other government demands, such as those from law enforcement for user data, Google, Twitter, and Facebook all publish annual reports documenting the number of requests they receive and how frequently they comply in each nation where the businesses operate.
The new policy of openly complying with government orders to remove content is the result of a complex set of circumstances. Disinformation is a built-in element of social media firms, in particular. Platforms are built to foster debate over contentious matters, even if this frequently results in flat-out incorrect material taking center stage as those who disagree or agree gather to engage. Second, technology corporations engage in a delicate dance with politicians from numerous countries to continue doing business abroad. Taking attempts to eradicate disinformation completely may consequently result in the creation of unfavorable political conditions, which may eventually damage earnings.
US-based internet businesses typically wait until political events get so horrific that they feel compelled to act to halt the spread of disinformation, ignorance, and hatred, all of which are always precursors to violence.
That pattern was evident in the United States before the violent and deadly raid on the US Capitol – by January, Facebook had dismantled the tools it had developed to safeguard the 2020 election, and the company had failed to halt the spread of the viral “Stop the Steal” online movement before the siege. Last year, the US surgeon general declared that misinformation regarding Covid-19 on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram constituted a “public health catastrophe” that had resulted in fatalities. Facebook confessed it was “too sluggish” to address hate speech on its platform that was used to “incite violence” and ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s Muslim communities.
Additionally, there is no US government regulation requiring tech companies to regulate material in any way. In the absence of such policies, one of the few mechanisms that have compelled social media corporations to make their platforms less dangerous is critical press and public pressure in the aftermath of a disaster. This check on social media businesses’ behavior, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as disinformers become more assertive and have risen to prominence across the entire information ecosystem.
Similarly, relying on public pressure to persuade firms to clean up their platforms has not yet resulted in meaningful policy advances. According to a new poll conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, Americans are generally concerned about the spread of disinformation online. However, US IT businesses are currently battling to put out flames that have grown out of control. A divided Congress is unlikely to agree on any legislation affecting the technology sector, large or small, anytime soon. Meanwhile, businesses are deciding what information is and is not available long after the ground war has been fought and the content that fueled it has reached millions.
The ability to control who has access to what information cannot be vested completely in the hands of immensely powerful corporations. If governments are unwilling to regulate these companies, perhaps because they are enchanted by technology or convinced by their powerful lobbying teams, it is time for us to write our own rules and insist on transparency and accountability across the entire tech stack, from internet service providers to platforms, cloud companies, and the open web. Access to reliable communications technology is a human right, not a consumer desire.
Our common communication infrastructure is a critical public concern that requires more attention from all segments of society. The conflict in Ukraine and the accompanying corporate denial of service attacks serve as a reminder that this technology is not neutral, but rather critical to international peace.
The authors are researchers at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Policy.
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