On Friday morning, as Russia continued its unprovoked attacks on Ukraineher government has also launched an attack on Facebook, announcing that it will begin to “partially restrict” access to social networks in Russia, where it is estimated to have about 70 million users, as Facebook has reportedly restricted pro-Russian news. Later that day, Facebook pushed back, writing that “Russian authorities have ordered us to stop independent fact-checking and content tagging” and that the company will continue to support ordinary Russians “using our app to express and organize for action”. Saturday morning and Twitter confirmed that its application is limited for some people in Russia.
Now Facebook and Twitter are in trouble, which is becoming more common for social networks in certain countries: they are facing demands from an authoritarian government that is pressuring them to censor content they don’t like and allow propaganda to run uncontrollably. If they do not follow the Kremlin’s orders, they risk being completely disconnected from the local Internet. In some cases, refusal could endanger some of their local employees – in the past, The Russian government has threatened to arrest technology workers based in the country when in dispute with their employers. These situations threaten to disrupt the way people communicate around the world.
There is no simple solution to such a conflict. For people living under these governments, losing access to major social media platforms can disrupt a key way in which they communicate and resist their own government and its propaganda. In Russia, for example, residents who oppose the invasion of Ukraine use Facebook, Twitter and other major social media platforms to distribute news of attacks and coordinate anti-war actions and protests.
“I think we’re heading towards the inevitable disruption of the global internet,” said Emerson Brooking, a permanent senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank who studies social media.
Social media in the 2000s was developed within the vision of a common, open and global internetwhich required major technology platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to largely follow the rules of political speech in any country in which they do business. This meant that technology companies – especially in locations outside the US and Europe – sometimes downloaded politically controversial speeches at the behest of the government.
Last September, Apple and Google deleted a voting application created by supporters of Alexei A. Navalny, Russia’s imprisoned opposition leader, after the Russian government allegedly threatened to arrest employees of technology giants if companies leave the app in their stores.
“In any case, these are implicit negotiations between the companies and the authoritarian government,” Brooking told Recode.
But sometimes these implicit negotiations can break down, as they did last March when the Kremlin deliberately slowed down Twitter in Russia after warning social media platforms to remove content supporting Navalny after his arrest. We see more and more of these failures.
Truly open, the global internet has never existed in China, where all American social networks are officially banned under its “Excellent firewall” which controls what citizens can access online. It no longer exists entirely in India, where Twitter and Facebook removed content at the request of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which started censorship of political dissidents intensified during the pandemic. And now, it may no longer exist in Russia, at a critical moment in global history.
What is happening in Russia could continue to tear up the open internet.
Why Russian restrictions on social networks could stifle the anti-war movement
Some politicians and online speech experts say it is important that the main social media platforms try to continue working in Russia, while still moderating the eyes of disinformation and limiting the propaganda pushed by the Russian state media. This is because social media platforms give Russians who disagree with the Kremlin a way to have their voices heard, and offer Russians a way to get information that Russian state media organizations will not share.
Wide circulating tweets show Russian protesters chanting against the war this week in Moscow. The popular rapper from St. Petersburg canceled his concert and published an anti-war message his over 2 million followers on Instagram on Thursday. I some children of Russian high-ranking state officials and oligarchs to have turned to Instagram to express their opposition to the invasion.
“There is always a balance to ensure that Russians who want the real story – or at least the story we see – still have access to social media platforms,” European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager told Recode on Friday. “But propaganda should have no place.”
In the next few days, the Russian government is expected to continue spreading false and misleading claims to support the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Twitter, Google and Facebook have said they are stepping up their efforts to remove videos that violate their policies. Twitter has temporarily paused its ads and some recommendations in Russia and Ukraine to prevent the spread of misinformation. Facebook announced on Friday that it was banning Russian state media from displaying ads. And YouTube told Recode that it is assessing whether new economic sanctions against Russia could affect the content allowed on the platform. The video platform is facing criticism for allowing advertisers to run ads against the state-run RT-backed state-run RT, which broadcasts live bombings in Ukraine.
It is unclear whether Russia will escalate its partial restrictions in response to Facebook’s continued refusal to stop moderating Russian media, or what exactly it will do to Twitter and YouTube.
Some internet security experts, social media researchers and activists have called for US-based social media companies to cut off state-funded Russian media or government accounts, as this could weaken the Russian government’s ability to distribute propaganda.
“During the Cold War, we would never have allowed that True published in the United States, ”said Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Why are we letting the Russians do that?”
But for all the above reasons, if technology companies further restrict Russian state media and official government accounts, it could risk further retaliation by the Russian government.
All of this underscores how social media is a key battleground for global powers. No wonder the Kremlin – which has proven itself masterfully in meddling in American politics using disinformation campaigns on social networks during the 2016 elections – is again trying to manipulate public discussion on the Internet in his favor.