Russia - Ukraine War: Blocking Of Russian State Media: The Blockage

YouTube, Facebook and TikTok are moving: Because of the invasion of Russia, platforms block Russian state media in the EU. What does this entail and who benefits from it?

When it comes to moderating content on their platforms, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Google are often, well, hesitant. With reference to free speech, the tech companies from Silicon Valley have already justified threats of violence and false information on their portals.

But there are situations in which even the tech platforms can no longer avoid removing content from their site or blocking actors. Since the beginning of Russia 's war of aggression against Ukraine, the platforms have reacted to the extraordinary situation with drastic measures.  

Meta, YouTube and Microsoft announced the biggest steps on Monday: They want to restrict access to the Russian state broadcasters RT and Sputnik in the EU. Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs at Facebook's parent company Meta, justified this with "a series of requests from governments and the EU to take further steps in relation to media controlled by the Russian state". 

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He also referred to the "extraordinary nature of the current situation". Google Europe also announced, they want to block YouTube channels related to RT and Sputnik "with immediate effect" in Europe. It will take a while for the measure to be technically implemented. Microsoft plans to ban RT's news app from its app store and no longer display content from RT or Sputnik in the Microsoft Start newsfeed or on msn.com.

The content on some platforms and services should also be displayed less prominently: Microsoft wants to change the algorithm of its search engine Bing so that content from RT and Sputnik is ranked lower. Twitter also wants to "significantly (...) reduce" the distribution of content from Russian media close to the state. In addition, their messages should be provided with warnings. YouTube had previously announced that it would significantly restrict recommendations for Russian-funded channels. In addition, YouTube, like Facebook in Ukraine, is blocking access to the state broadcaster RT and other state-sponsored media in Russia - after a request from the Ukrainian government.

In the past few days, the platforms had already put pressure on the Russian state media with announcements: They should no longer be able to earn money from advertising on YouTube and Facebook platforms, and Twitter would not allow ads in Russia or Ukraine.

The platforms want to continue to decisively counter disinformation and misinformation. Facebook, for example, refused to stop fact-checks by independent media organizations on Russian state media and insisted on continuing to label Russian state media content as such. On Sunday, the platform again blocked a network of fake accounts that wanted to sow disinformation – and accused the Russian hacker group Ghostwriter of attacking Ukrainian military Facebook groups. Twitter and Google also announced that they would continue to take action against disinformation.

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Netflix is ​​theoretically obliged by Russian law to include several Russian channels in its programming. However, the US streaming platform said on Monday that "given the current situation, we have no plans to add these channels to our service".

Not neutral

The companies have thus implicitly acknowledged what they have long denied: they are not neutral platforms. They are responsible for what happens on their portals. You are able to moderate content and restrict its distribution if necessary. And now, in the face of a war of aggression from Russia, so are they.

It is an intervention that led to outrage on the Russian side: the Russian communications supervisory authority Roskomnadzor already accused the Facebook parent company Meta of censorship on Friday and accused the service of violating the "rights and freedoms of Russian citizens".

Both Twitter and Facebook have faced access restrictions in Russia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are now "largely unusable" there, according to internet watchdog organization NetBlocks.

The new determination

Social media platforms have rarely reacted so decisively when it came to dealing with misinformation and state propaganda. Some of the measures that the platforms had initially announced still seemed like the smallest possible step: the advertising ban for Russian state media such as RT, for example, probably cost them relatively little.

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However, the EU-wide ban on Russian state media from several platforms has a different quality – as does the decision to restrict the distribution of their content. In the past, especially when dealing with Russia, the focus was more on undermining covert information operations, such as troll farms, and throwing them off their platforms.

The European Union had already announced a ban on RT and Sputnik in the EU on Sunday. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the Russian media "will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify (President Vladimir) Putin's war". Overall, several EU commissioners had pushed for more engagement against Russian war propaganda and disinformation from the platforms.

"Balance act for the companies"

There is a well-known dilemma behind the gradual tightening of measures by the tech companies: On the one hand, in the current situation, one can already believe that they are interested in taking action against informational warfare via manipulation, troll farms and disinformation on their platforms.

On the other hand, in the past, they were often careful that from their point of view this should not be too time-consuming or hurt in any other way. After all, companies also have an economic interest in not moderating content too rigidly, not restricting its distribution too zealously, and not sanctioning violations too harshly. Also, so as not to mess with authoritarian regimes too easily and risk being blocked there. India, China, but also Russia and other countries have already put platforms under pressure in the past in order to get them to give in in cases of conflict.

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"It's a balancing act for companies," says Frederike Kaltheuner of the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch on the current measures taken by the platforms in view of the war against Ukraine. Platforms must "protect freedom of the press and freedom of expression, especially in places where there are not many alternatives". The current concern is, for example, that in addition to Facebook and Twitter, YouTube will also be blocked in Russia. War crimes are also documented on social media, and such content must be archived and preserved, says Kaltheuner.

Just as governments have made unprecedented decisions in recent days, so have companies, for example with the blocking of Russia Today and Sputnik in Europe. "This will have consequences, also for the many other conflicts and wars that are currently happening in the world," she says, "that's why we are monitoring these developments very closely." The real problem is that no company should have so much responsibility for the global public discourse. It needs "significantly more transparency and accountability".

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Apart from the need for a US company to take a stand in the face of a Russian war of aggression or to bow to political pressure from the EU, for example, the question naturally also arises as to how important the actions of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others are for the civil society in Russia and Ukraine actually is.

US services such as Facebook and Twitter are less common among users in Russia than, for example, Russian platforms such as vKontakte or Odnoklassniki. This means that the major US platforms are of course of great importance in the global struggle for interpretation sovereignty and moods. But other social media also play a role in Russia and Ukraine.

For example, there are two that have remained relatively silent in the discussion between Russia and Silicon Valley for a long time: Telegram and TikTok.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov warned on Sunday that his platform does not have the capacity to check all publications for accuracy. "I strongly advise Russian and Ukrainian users to be suspicious of any data currently being disseminated via Telegram," he wrote on Telegram. He doesn't want his platform to be used "as a tool to exacerbate conflicts". An afterthought, according to which he was considering partially or completely restricting Telegram channels in the affected countries in the event of a further escalation of the situation, he apparently subsequently deleted again. Telegram started out as a messenger, but the service has now developed into a kind of social media platform with discussion groups and channels.

Telegram traditionally resists as far as possible interfering with content posted by users. The service has repeatedly come under criticism because users can also spread false information and hate speech there largely unchecked.

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Public statements by the video platform TikTok were also missing for several days. Especially now, in times of war, the network flushes authentic or inauthentic video scraps from war zones onto millions of mobile phones and thus significantly shapes the image of the war. Initially, there were no signs that TikTok was planning or already taking separate measures against Russian propaganda. However, the company responded on Monday. A spokesman announced that two state broadcasters in the EU also wanted to be blocked : Those who use the app in EU countries should no longer be able to access pages or content that RT or Sputnik have posted.

Some observers are already deriving fundamental consequences for the Internet as a whole from the current developments on the platforms. "I think we are moving towards an inevitable disruption of the global internet," Emerson Brooking of the US think tank Atlantic Council told US news site Vox on Saturday . The reason for this is that there are always "implicit negotiations" between platforms and authoritarian states - which could escalate again and again, for example if a platform refuses too stubbornly to tackle politically undesirable information.

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