Misinformation Mania: Big Tech caught in the middle of an information war

March 31, 2022

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Big Tech is being pushed to remove Russian state-backed media from their social media platforms.

What does this mean?

Following Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, Ukrainian ministers and western governments have been pushing for Big Tech’s social media platforms to stop enabling propaganda and disinformation from Russian state-backed media. Meta-owned Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok have stopped distributing Russia’s state-owned propaganda services outside of Russia, but have continued to try and operate within Russia.

In response to the invasion of Ukraine, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said she planned to “ban in the EU the Kremlin’s media machine”. The bloc’s intention is to prohibit access to any misinformation and limit access to pro-Russian propaganda. The EU’s decision continues to be cited as content becomes increasingly restricted. Thierry Breton, European internal markets commissioner, urged Google and YouTube to make changes to their terms of service to ensure “war propaganda” never appears as recommended content to users. 

Consumer goods provided by Big Tech are also becoming subject to restrictions. Google, Apple, and Microsoft have stopped sales to new customers in Russia as the list of companies suspending operations grows rapidly.

What's the big picture effect?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed that Big Tech can have a significant role to play in modern geopolitical conflicts. Responsibility during these conflicts does not lie solely with governments.

The removal of state media would mark a new frontier for social media platforms. This is in stark contrast to when Russia’s Internet Research Agency used disinformation campaigns to amplify propaganda about the U.S. election in 2016. During this, there was little pushback from social media platforms. Laura Edelson, a misinformation researcher, suggests that at that time “there was a sense that the platforms just didn’t know what to do”. However, it seems that social media platforms now have a renewed understanding of their role concerning the spread of misinformation. Alongside adjusting algorithms and fact-checking, these platforms have targeted revenue streams. Platforms have paused the ability for Russian state-media channels to run advertisements or to monetise any content they create.

Big Tech’s involvement in the war on information extends past the social media sector. Microsoft has cut off sales of all its products in Russia following Ukraine’s demands for Big Tech to take meaningful action to stop the spread of misinformation and pro-Russian propaganda. Microsoft has also blocked downloads of the RT app, as well as RT and Sputnik content from its MSN website. Similarly, Google has decided to block downloads of the RT app in Ukrainian territory. 

However, many Big Tech companies have not ended deals with existing customers, except for those explicitly targeted by new sanctions and export controls. Despite pleas from the Ukrainian ministry of digital transformation to cut these ties, Russian companies and government agencies can still rely on cloud software systems provided by Microsoft, Oracle, and Dell. There is evidently still room for more action. 

Companies involved in the monitoring of pro-Russian propaganda have been accused by Russia of censorship. Along with these accusations are threats of restricted access to these platforms in Russia. Russia has been keen to highlight the apparent hypocrisy of western governments, contending they share the same openness to opposing views. Russia’s reaction has been to pass new legislation that threatens journalists with up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false information” about the war (which is not to be called a war, but a special military operation). The introduction of this “fake news” law saw the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg and others announce the immediate suspension of their services in Russia.  

As the access to information becomes restricted, it appears yet another iron curtain may be descending on Russia as it becomes increasingly isolated. Isolation is likely to persist, as long as the war or occupation of Ukraine continues. In many aspects, Russia is now as totalitarian as China but without foreign travel, consumer goods, or a functioning economy.

Report written by William Sutcliffe

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