Big Tech’s Russia problem


Vladimir Putin sits in a meeting.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with business leaders in Moscow. | Alexei Nikolsky/TASS/via Getty Images

Social media companies are in a standoff with Russia on censorship — and there’s no easy solution.

On Friday morning, as Russia continued its unprovoked attacks on Ukraine, its government also launched an assault on Facebook, announcing that it would begin “partially restricting” access to the social media network in Russia, where there are an estimated 70 million users, because Facebook allegedly restricted pro-Russian news sites. Later that day, Facebook pushed back, writing that “Russian authorities ordered us to stop the independent fact-checking and labeling of content” and that the company would continue to support ordinary Russians “using our app to express themselves and organize for action.” On Saturday morning, Twitter also confirmed that its app is being restricted for some people in Russia.

Now Facebook and Twitter find themselves in a predicament that’s become increasingly common for social media networks in certain countries: They’re facing the demands of an authoritarian government that’s pressuring them to censor content it doesn’t like, and to allow propaganda to run unchecked. If they don’t follow the Kremlin’s orders, they risk being booted off of the local internet entirely. In some cases, refusing could put some of their local employees at risk — in the past, the Russian government has threatened to arrest tech employees based in the country when disputing with their employers. These situations threaten to fracture the way people communicate across the world.

There’s no simple solution to such a standoff. For the people living under these governments, losing access to major social media platforms can cut off a key way they communicate and resist their own government and its propaganda. In Russia, for example, residents who oppose the invasion of Ukraine have been using Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media platforms to distribute news about the attacks and to coordinate anti-war actions and protests.

“I think we’re heading toward an inevitable break in the global internet,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank who studies social media.

Social media in the 2000s was developed under a vision of a shared, open, and global internet, which required major tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to largely follow the political speech rules of whatever countries they operated in. That meant that tech companies — particularly in places outside the US and Europe — sometimes took down politically controversial speech at the behest of government orders.

Last September, Apple and Google deleted a voting app created by supporters of Aleksei A. Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader, after the Russian government reportedly threatened to arrest the tech giants’ employees if the companies left the app up in their stores.

“In every case it’s an implicit negotiation between companies and an authoritarian government,” Brooking told Recode.

But sometimes that implicit negotiation can break down, as it did last March when the Kremlin intentionally slowed down Twitter in Russia after warning social media platforms to take down content supporting Navalny after his arrest. We’re seeing these breakdowns happen more often.

A truly open, global internet never existed in China, where all US social media companies are officially banned under its “Great Firewall” that controls what citizens can access online. It no longer fully exists in India, where Twitter and Facebook have taken down content at the demand of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which began censoring political dissenters with increasing vigor during the pandemic. And now, it may not exist much longer in Russia, at a critical moment in global history.

What happens next in Russia may continue to splinter the open internet.

Why Russian restrictions on social media could stifle the anti-war movement

Some politicians and online speech experts say it’s important for mainstream social media platforms to try to continue operating in Russia, while still moderating blatant misinformation and restricting propaganda pushed by Russian state media. That’s because social media platforms are giving Russians who disagree with the Kremlin a way to make their voices heard, and they’re offering Russians a way to get information that Russia’s state-run media organizations won’t share.

Widely circulated tweets showed Russian protesters chanting against the war this week in Moscow. A popular St. Petersburg rapper canceled his concert and posted an anti-war message to his over 2 million Instagram followers on Thursday. And some children of Russian senior state officials and oligarchs have turned to Instagram to voice their opposition to the invasion.

“It’s always a balance to make sure that Russians who want the real story — or at least the story as we see it — still have access” to social media platforms, European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager told Recode on Friday. “But propaganda shouldn’t have a place.”

In the next few days, it’s expected that Russia’s government will continue circulating false and misleading claims to support the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Twitter, Google, and Facebook have all said they are increasing their efforts to remove videos that violate their policies. Twitter has temporarily paused its ads and some recommendations in Russia and Ukraine to prevent misinformation from spreading. Facebook announced on Friday it was prohibiting Russian state media from running ads. And YouTube told Recode that it’s evaluating whether new economic sanctions on Russia may impact what content is allowed on the platform. The video platform has faced criticism for allowing advertisers to run ads against Russian-backed state media outlet RT as it livestreams bombings in Ukraine.

It’s unclear if 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 advocated for US-based social media companies to cut off Russian state-funded media or state-run accounts, since that could weaken the Russian government’s ability to distribute propaganda.

“During the Cold War, we would never let Pravda publish 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 this?”

But for all the previously mentioned reasons, if tech companies further limit Russian state media and official government accounts, that could risk further retaliation by the Russian government.

All of this underscores how social media is a key battleground for global powers. It should come as no surprise that the Kremlin — which has proven itself masterful at interfering with US politics using social media disinformation campaigns during the 2016 elections — is once again trying to manipulate the online public conversation in its favor.