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Big Tech cracks down on Russian state media content amid mounting pressure

<i>Omar Marques/SOPA Images//LightRocket/Getty Images</i><br/>
LightRocket via Getty Images
Omar Marques/SOPA Images//LightRocket/Getty Images

By Brian Fung, CNN Business

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all taking tougher stances on content from Russian state media amid intensifying pressure from European officials for the Big Tech platforms to act against pro-Russian propaganda and address the escalating information war in Ukraine and across the internet.

But there are concerns that cracking down too aggressively could come with unintended consequences, both for the platforms and for Russian citizens who rely on those services.

Facebook-parent Meta will block access to Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik across the European Union after receiving “requests from a number of Governments and the EU to take further steps in relation to Russian state controlled media,” Nick Clegg, the company’s VP of global affairs, said in a tweet Monday.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s head of security policy, previously told reporters Sunday evening that Meta was reviewing requests by various governments asking for its platforms to block Russian state media content entirely. Meta had already complied with such a request from Ukraine’s government and is now “fully blocking the ability of a number of Russian state media entities from broadcasting into Ukraine,” Gleicher added.

On Monday, Twitter announced that any link shared by a user to a Russian state media organization’s website will automatically receive a label warning viewers that the tweet “links to a Russia state-affiliated media website.” The social network also plans to “reduce the visibility and amplification of this content site-wide, no matter who it comes from,” said Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy.

YouTube said over the weekend it has blocked Russian state media within Ukraine, including RT — although a CNN review Monday found that YouTube still allows Ukrainian IP addresses to access content from RT’s Arabic- and Spanish-language channels, each of which has roughly 6 million subscribers. (YouTube didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

YouTube also said on Saturday that as part of its move to restrict RT and other Russian state media on its platform, it would be “significantly limiting recommendations to these channels.” On Sunday, Gleicher said Meta, too, has applied algorithmic restrictions to Russian state media that should prevent it from surfacing as prominently in users’ feeds.

In taking those steps, the platforms appeared to acknowledge public pressure from European Union officials for more aggressive action, even as these moves risk further antagonizing Russia. Meta and YouTube previously said they would temporarily prevent a number of Russian channels, including RT, from monetizing their content, but faced calls to do more.

“Platforms cannot be a space for [Russia’s] war lies”

On Sunday, European Commission leaders held a meeting with the CEOs of Google and YouTube to press the companies further — with some, such as Commissioner Thierry Breton, comparing the Russian invasion to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots in the United States.

“Online platforms took unprecedented steps after the Capitol Hill attacks,” Breton said Sunday, tweeting several images of the virtual meeting. “Surely Russian war #propaganda merits at least the same level of response.”

In a statement, European Union Vice President Vera Jourova said she appreciated some of the moves taken by Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, and that she would remain in touch with the company.

“I expect YouTube and Google to step up efforts to address Russian war propaganda,” Jourova said. “Russia has weaponized information; this is why platforms cannot be a space for its war lies.”

It is unclear whether EC officials have held similar meetings with other social media CEOs or if similar meetings are being planned. Charles Manoury, a European Commission spokesperson, said only that officials were “exploring various options” to coordinate with online platforms.

Twitter declined to comment when asked whether it has met with EC officials; Meta didn’t respond to a request for comment. Alphabet didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on its Sunday meeting.

Russia pushes back on Big Tech

As western officials pressure tech platforms to take a tougher stance, Russia has been pushing in the opposite direction.

The Russian government has already called for YouTube to reverse its restrictions on Russian state media channels and moved to “partially restrict” Facebook access for “fact-checking and labelling” several Russian outlets. Gleicher told reporters on Sunday that Meta’s platforms appear to remain accessible to Russian users for now, though the company is aware of indications that Russia may “throttle our platforms in-country.”

Russia on Monday also demanded that TikTok censor content about the war in Ukraine as well as “related political content,” saying much of it had a “pronounced anti-Russian character.” TikTok didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In light of the pressure from Russia, tech platforms need more support from US and European government officials to stand up to authoritarian regimes, said Alina Polyakova, CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a transatlantic think tank, at a Washington conference on Monday.

Recent legislation passed in Russia that tries to bring foreign tech companies further under the country’s legal jurisdiction could make it much more difficult for western platforms to continue doing business there, Polyakova said. And as Russia continues to impose fines and threaten restrictions on those companies for not removing truthful information, those platforms face a difficult choice that could ultimately affect everyday Russians and their ability to protest the Kremlin.

“YouTube, for example, has been the only reason why Russian opposition voices, or independent voices, have had any avenue for expression in a deeply state-controlled environment,” Polyakova said. “Do these companies just pull out and basically cede this information environment completely to the authoritarian state? It’s a really difficult situation that firms find themselves in.”

That dilemma extends beyond the big social media platforms. On Friday, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook urging him to “stop supplying Apple services and products to the Russian Federation” and called on Apple to block its app store in the country. Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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