Millions of people are flocking to platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Twitter for round-the-clock updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine – renewing scrutiny of the outsized role that tech companies play in disseminating news of war.
Social media has long been instrumental in distributing frontline footage, but Ukraine presents a new scale of global conflict for private platforms to navigate.
Tech companies are facing a constant stream of mis- and disinformation, propaganda from Russian-backed outlets, violent content, and on-the-ground footage of fleeing refugees, causing world leaders and tech watchdogs to call for greater accountability and transparency in how companies wield their powerful platforms.
Ukrainian officials last week pleaded with US tech giants to take action against Russia, urging them to restrict access to their services within Russia, more forcefully curtail the spread of misinformation, and crack down on Russian state-backed outlets.
“In 2022, modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers and missiles,” Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a letter to Tim Cook asking the Apple CEO to cut off Russia’s access to the App Store.
Over the weekend, the prime ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia sent a joint letter to the chief executives of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, urging them to proactively suspend accounts denying, glorifying or justifying wars of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“Although the online platforms have undertaken significant efforts to address the Russian government’s unprecedented assault on truth, they have not done enough,” they said in the letter.
They also urged the companies to suspend the official accounts of Russian and Belarusian government institutions, state-controlled media and personal accounts of the countries’ leadership and their associates, which routinely disseminate false information about the invasion.
Some platforms have taken heed. Twitter said that on 27 February it had permanently suspended more than a dozen accounts and blocked some content that violated its “manipulation and spam” policy. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, and Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, spoke with EU officials on Sunday to discuss how to better crack down on misinformation.
Meta, which owns Facebook, has barred Russian state-run media from selling ads on its platforms and removed networks of accounts spreading misinformation. Its vice-president, Nick Clegg, tweeted on Monday it had restricted access to the Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik across the EU, following requests from a number of governments and the EU.
Clegg also said Meta would continue to label and factcheck these outlets as well as prohibit ads and demonetize their accounts globally.
But some argue this is not enough. Although Facebook said in October 2019 it would start “labelling state-controlled media on their Page and in our Ad Library”, as part of efforts against disinformation targeting US elections, a study released on Friday by the Center for Countering Digital Hate showed Facebook was failing to label 91% of posts containing Russian propaganda about Ukraine.
“Facebook has once again fallen short on their promises to enforce their own rules,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “The justification for the Russian war against Ukraine was built on Facebook.”
An activist group monitoring Facebook policy that calls itself the Real Facebook Oversight Board called on the platform to take “more aggressive action” to stop the spread of misinformation.
The group has called on Meta to cut off Russian state-funded media entirely and proactively suspend accounts justifying wars of aggression. It also requested more information about how many resources Facebook was dedicating to content moderation in Russia and Ukraine, including in local languages.
Others have called for more direct government intervention in how tech companies handle Russia. The Biden administration should issue clear sanctions preventing American digital media firms from – at the very least – doing business with and monetizing Russian state accounts, said Justin Hendrix, the CEO and editor of the non-profit democracy and technology media venture Tech Policy Press.
“This is war, and the lies and falsehoods that the Russian state media and Putin’s officials will share in the next days across American social media platforms are weapons intended to legitimize the Kremlin’s brutality, divide Ukraine’s allies and diminish any potential opposition,” he said.