Russia’s government announced on Friday that it has blocked Facebook. Within hours, Twitter appeared to have been blocked as well. The moves are a major escalation in a standoff between Big Tech and the Kremlin that has been brewing since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The announcement appeared to be retaliation for restrictions the social media platforms had placed on pro-Kremlin accounts. Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, said it had recorded “26 cases of discrimination against Russian media and information resources by Facebook.” It is unclear if the block is permanent. “We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services,” said Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Facebook parent Meta, in response to the news.
Before the block, Facebook had been busy labeling the outlets it considered under the control of the Russian state, a decision the country's media regulator decried as “censorship.” Last week, when Russians clicked on links posted to Facebook by RIA Novosti, the TV channel Zvezda, or the websites Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru, they were taken to a page that showed a red exclamation mark next to the words “Russia state-controlled media” and were asked if they wanted to “go back” or “follow link.” The pages Facebook had labeled stood out for omitting the violence taking place in Ukraine. In the past week, Zvezda’s Facebook page featured no pictures of Ukraine’s bomb-damaged buildings. Instead its posts told followers about an officer who had died heroically as part of the special operation, talked about how the Russian Armed Forces were “liberating” settlements in the Donbas, and promoted claims of “shelling of Donetsk by Ukrainian nationalists.” Ukraine has previously denied Russian accusations that it is shelling this region.
Since Russia invaded, the world has turned its financial system into a weapon to weaken Putin. The US has banned transactions with Russia’s central bank. The UK has told British ports not to admit any vessels owned, controlled, or chartered by Russians. Now public pressure is calling for major tech companies to issue their own kind of sanctions by cracking down on the Russian state-backed media outlets that are amplifying the Kremlin’s version of events on US platforms. On Friday, Meta agreed to a UK government request to block RT and Sputnik on both Facebook and Instagram. The European Commission also confirmed to WIRED that it had received a letter from the country’s vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, accusing social media platforms of acting like “digital arms merchants” by spreading Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and asking the EU to "remove all Kremlin-affiliated accounts globally.”
But the Russian government’s decision to block Facebook and Twitter revealed the cost of those measures. It will also be read as a warning shot to other social networks planning similar crackdowns on Russian propaganda. US social media sites operating in Russia have spent years shaping a presence that maintains just enough of their American identity to be considered a liberal alternative to heavily censored domestic platforms but not enough to prompt Russian regulators to kick them out of the country. The crisis in Ukraine has upended that delicate equilibrium. As Ukraine’s government pressures the platforms to block Russian state media altogether, concerns have been raised that if the platforms do that, Russia will retaliate—cutting off ordinary Russians behind a digital iron curtain.
Until Friday, the only US tech platform that had been banned inside Russia was LinkedIn, in 2016. Instead, Big Tech is wildly popular in a country with 99 million social media users. In 2020, YouTube was the country’s most popular social network, with Facebook and Instagram also in the top 10, according to a report by Statista. Twitter ranked number 11. The relationship between these platforms and the Russian government was already complicated before the war, says Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Instead of blocking these sites, Russia’s government has tried to crimp freedom of speech from within them. Since 2015, Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has issued a flurry of laws designed to strong-arm social media companies into taking down content. But the platforms have so far managed to sidestep them, says Epifanova. “Foreign companies and especially US-based companies don't really follow the regulations.” Instead, US platforms have been able to build a reputation as liberal carve-outs on the Russian internet that are critical for local activists and independent journalists. “These companies really provide a single [place] now for Russian opposition and for Russian critical voices,” she adds.
But this online freedom is now in jeopardy as Big Tech’s relationship with Russia is squeezed from all directions. “One kind of pressure is the pressure to leave the country entirely,” says David Kaye, former United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression. “The other pressure, which is aligned with that but not quite as draconian, is to moderate and take down disinformation in the country in a quicker way and in a more forceful way … But there's also this new pressure from Russia, for the companies to keep content up.”
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During the first days of the invasion, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube steered away from taking drastic action. Instead, they focused on labeling, demonetizing, or blocking pro-Kremlin channels such as Russia Today (RT) in places like the EU or Ukraine. Meta and Google-owned YouTube stopped state media from making money through advertising on their platforms. Twitter also paused advertising across Ukraine and Russia. As the violence escalated, the platforms went further. On February 28, Twitter said it would reduce the visibility of tweets posted on Russian state-affiliated media websites. On March 1, Meta said it would also demote this type of content on both Facebook and Instagram.
Russia quickly made it clear that the platforms could expect retaliation for any restrictions placed on state media. By Friday, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were all being throttled, meaning their website speeds were intentionally slowed. In the hours before Facebook was blocked, Alena Georgobiani, a communications expert based in Moscow, said the platform's images and icons were loading very slowly and YouTube was also taking around five minutes to load. Earlier in the week, the YouTube page for the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, which has 1.3 million subscribers, was also replaced with a message that says: “This channel does not exist.”
At the same time, Russia’s media regulator was trying to tighten its control over the platforms, pressuring them to follow existing rules and threatening the companies with an advertising ban if they didn’t. These developments were making Russian users nervous that their days using American social media sites were numbered. “I believe that at any moment Roskomnadzor can completely block these platforms to try to stop Russian users disseminating information about the Ukrainian war that they cannot control,” says Sarkis Darbinyan, chief legal officer of Russian digital rights group RosKomSvoboda, speaking from Moscow.
If US tech companies comply with Russia’s rules, they will lose their liberal audiences, he says. But if they don’t, they could be blocked. “I don't think it is a good idea to block all Russian users because it will not help to prevent the war,” Darbinyan says. “But it will definitely make the Russian state an information vacuum because people will not be able to receive actual and true information about what is going on.”
In the days before the Facebook block, Georgobiani says her friends prepared, using the platform to share their Telegram details in case the site suddenly went dark. “We Russians have been living in fear [of] being cut off from the West,” she says.
But Russia’s Facebook block makes it clear that other US social media companies have to make a choice: Let the country’s state-run media appear on people’s screens or prepare to be kicked out of Russia.
Even if platforms like YouTube and Twitter accept Russia's conditions, how much state-controlled media they will allow is a divisive issue. Some experts believe compromising on propaganda would be a price worth paying to keep Russians connected to the global internet. “Sanctions should not be used as a tool to undermine the ability of either Russians or Ukrainians to communicate with one another,” says Kaye, adding that he is not certain banning propaganda on US social networks would make a difference.
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State-run media is dominant in Russia, and researchers have credited it with a recent hardening of attitudes against the West. In a February poll, 60 percent of Russians said the US and NATO instigated the escalation in eastern Ukraine, according to independent pollster Levada. That number has increased 10 percent since November.
“I would not criticize the platforms for carrying [channels like] RT in Russia, because I don't think it matters. Russia has a captured media environment. Russians will always be bombarded with state media,” agrees Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow for the Atlantic Council, a US think tank. However, he does believe US tech companies should ban pro-Kremlin channels abroad. “In this current context, they are weapons which the Russian state deploys alongside its military to justify their actions, and these weapons are pointed abroad to persuade other audiences.”
But Facebook’s block has validated concerns that restricting state-run media abroad could be enough to get the platforms kicked out of Russia. “If [platforms] limit Russian channels in the West, they will face the consequences in the country,” says Barbora Bukovská, senior director for law and policy at digital rights group Article 19.
Others believe that some platforms are safer than others.
“Facebook is not very important because the majority of the population uses Vkontakte, the local substitute for Facebook,” says Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for Alexei Navalny's Russian presidential campaign and cofounder of digital rights group The Internet Protection Society.
However, he believes blocking a site like YouTube would risk political blowblack. The company is the country’s most popular platform, and its Russian competitor, RuTube, has a very small audience. “[Putin] realizes that the vast majority of internet users in Russia are apolitical. They still use television as a major source of political information, and they use the internet for dating, games, and sports,” he says. “So consider if YouTube has 100 million users. Twenty million of them are political and they get access to anti-Putin information. But if he decides to block YouTube entirely, he will antagonize those [other] 80 million.”
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