Big tech grapples with Russian state media, propaganda

WASHINGTON – As Russia’s war in Ukraine erupts on social media, major tech platforms are moving to restrict Russian state media from using their platforms to spread misinformation and propaganda. transmission.

On Tuesday, Google announced that it was blocking those agencies’ YouTube channels in Europe “with immediate effect” but acknowledged that “it will take time for our system to fully evolve. “

So far, other US-owned tech companies have made more modest changes: limiting the reach of the Kremlin, labeling more of this content so people know it’s available. source from the Russian government and cut off Russian state agencies from any advertising revenue they had previously earned.

The changes are a careful balancing act aimed at slowing the Kremlin from putting propaganda content into social media feeds without causing officials to fall, said Katie Harbath, a former public policy officer. Russia is so angry that it stripped citizens of access to platforms during critical times of war, said Katie Harbath, a former public policy officer. director of Facebook.

“They’re trying to get on this very good path; they’re doing this dance,” said Harbath, who is now director of technology and democracy at the International Republic Institute. “We want to stand up against Russia, but we also don’t want to shut down in the country. How far can we push this?”

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, announced on Monday that it will restrict access to Russian RT and Sputnik services in Europe, following a statement from European Union President Ursula von der Leyen over the weekend that officials are working to ban these sites across the EU.

Third, Google introduced a European ban on these two stores on YouTube.

The US has failed to take similar action or impose sanctions on Russian state media, leaving US-owned tech companies grappling with how to remove the reach of Russian state media on their own. Kremlin.

The results have been mixed.

RT and other Russian state media accounts are still active on Facebook in the US. Twitter on Monday announced that after seeing more than 45,000 tweets a day from users sharing Russian state media links in recent days, it will add labels to content from Kremlin websites. . The company also said it will not refer or direct users to Russia-linked websites in its search function.

Over the weekend, the Menlo Park, California-based company announced it was banning advertising in Russian state-run media and had removed a network of 40 fake accounts, pages and groups that had posted claims. support Russia. The network used fictional people posing as journalists and experts, but didn’t have a large audience.

Facebook started labeling state-controlled media in 2020.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has stated that it will not display content or advertisements from RT and Sputnik, or include RT apps in its app store. And Google’s YouTube has restricted Russian state media from monetizing the site through ads, although the outlets still upload videos every few minutes on the site.

By comparison, the tight approach taken by TikTok, a Chinese platform popular in the US for short, humorous videos, has allowed pro-Russian propaganda to flourish on its website. The company did not respond to messages seeking comment.

A video recently posted to RT’s TikTok channel features a clip of Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to former US President Donald Trump, who is currently hosting a podcast with a penchant for disinformation and conspiracy theories. .

“Ukraine is not even a country. It’s a concept,” Bannon said in the clip, echoing a statement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “So when we talk about sovereignty and self-determination, it’s just a corrupt area where the Clintons have turned into a colony where they can steal money.”

Now, Facebook’s efforts to limit the reach of Russian state media have angered Russian officials. Last week, Meta officials said they had rejected Russian requests to stop fact-checking or labeling posts made by Russian state media. Kremlin officials responded by restricting access to Facebook.

The company has also denied requests from Ukrainian officials, who asked Meta to remove access to its platforms in Russia. The move will prevent everyday Russians from using the platforms to learn about the war, voice their views or organize protests, according to Nick Clegg, recently appointed deputy chairman. President of the company’s global affairs.

“We believe shutting down our services silences vital expression at a critical time,” Clegg wrote on Twitter Sunday.

Alexandra Givens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization.

“These platforms are a way for dissidents to organize and push back,” Givens said. “The clearest sign of that is that the regime is trying to block access to Facebook and Twitter.”

Russia has spent years crafting its vast propaganda machine, boasting dozens of websites targeting millions of people in different languages. That preparation is making it difficult for any tech company to respond quickly, said Graham Shellenberger at Miburo Solutions, a company that tracks misinformation and influence campaigns.

“This is a system that has been in the works for over 10 years, especially for Ukraine,” Shellenberger said. “They’ve created channels, they’ve created messengers. And suddenly now, we’re starting to act against it.”

Redfish, a Facebook page seen as a Russian state-controlled media outlet, has built up more than 800,000 mostly American and liberal-leaning followers over the years.

In recent days, the site has posted anti-US posts and sought to downplay Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “military operation” and devoting many posts to highlighting anti-government protests. wars all over Russia.

A Facebook post also used a map image to highlight air strikes in other parts of the world.

“Don’t let the Europeanism of the mainstream media dictate your moral support for the victims of war,” the post read.

Last week, US Senator Mark Warner of Virginia sent letters to Google, Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter urging them to restrict such Russian influence campaigns on their websites.

In addition to Russia’s use of influence operations as a tool of strategic influence, information warfare is an integral part of Russia’s military doctrine, Warner writes.


Klepper reports from Providence, RI

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