Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has emerged as a watershed geopolitical moment for some of the world’s largest technology companies, as their platforms have been transformed into major battlegrounds in a parallel information war, with their data and services serving as vital links in the conflict.
Over the past several days, companies like as Google, Meta, Twitter, Telegram, and others have been forced to struggle with how to use that authority in the face of rising demands from Ukrainian, Russian, European Union, and United States government authorities.
Officials from Ukraine appealed with Apple, Meta, and Google on Friday to limit the availability of their services in the Russian Federation. Google and Meta, which owns Facebook, then prohibited state-run media from running advertisements on their own platforms. As part of his discussions with senior European Union officials on how to fight Russian disinformation, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, also met with President Donald Trump.
As a result of widespread disinformation, Telegram, a popular messaging app in Russia and Ukraine, has threatened to shut down channels that are connected to the conflict as a result of the situation. Additionally, on Monday, Twitter said that it will flag all tweets containing links to Russian state-affiliated media sites, and Meta announced that it would limit access to certain of those outlets within the European Union in order to thwart war propaganda campaigns.
For several of the corporations involved, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, the conflict represents a chance to repair their reputations after being questioned in recent years about privacy, market dominance, and the manner in which they propagate poisonous and divisive information on the internet. Their opportunity to demonstrate that they can use their technology for good has not been seen since the Arab Spring of 2011, when social media brought activists together and was hailed as a democratic tool to help bring about change.
However, the IT businesses are faced with difficult options. The consequences of any blunders might be severe, giving more impetus to moves in Europe and the United States to regulate their firms, or perhaps driving Russia to outright prohibit their operations completely.
Employees claim that executives inside the firms are making decisions based on their experience and judgement. Taking certain actions and not others might lead to Google, Meta, Twitter and other companies being accused of doing too little and seeming half-hearted. However, restricting the availability of too many services and information may result in the exclusion of ordinary Russians from the digital dialogues that may serve to fight state-sponsored misinformation.
Yel Eisenstat, a fellow at the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles think tank, and former head of Facebook’s election integrity operations, said, “These companies want all of the benefits that come with monopolising the world’s communications without any of the responsibility that comes with getting swept up in geopolitics and having to choose sides.” As she put it, digital corporations are “in a no-win scenario while dealing with a worldwide crisis” in a number of ways.
Twitter started tagging all tweets containing links to Russian state-affiliated media sites on Monday in order to make users more aware of the information sources in their feeds. Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, users have tweeted links to state-affiliated media roughly 45,000 times each day, according to the organisation.
Those steps, according to Ms. Schaake, who is now the international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, were insufficient. Companies must restrict Russian propaganda channels and set clearer policies about their values in human rights and democracy, she said, rules that might be extended beyond Russia’s borders.
Others cautioned that if the sites were restricted in Russia, it would have a severe impact on the country’s economy. In the words of Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and censorship specialist, “it’s the most essential forum for public discourse about what’s going on.” The fact that Facebook was blocking access for Russian people would not be seen positively by anybody.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Twitter, they said that they take their involvement in the dispute seriously. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
A message to his more than 600,000 followers on Telegram on Sunday said that the platform’s creator Pavel Durov was contemplating shutting certain war-related channels in Ukraine and Russia because they may exacerbate the crisis and encourage ethnic hate.
Users expressed concern, stating that they depended on Telegram for unbiased information on the situation. Mr. Durov made a complete 180-degree turn less than an hour later.
“Many users requested that we refrain from considering shutting Telegram channels during the violence since we are their sole source of information,” he said. There was no response to a request for comment from Telegram.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki met with Cédric O, France’s minister for digital policy, on Monday. Cédric O is the country’s digital policy minister. On a phone conversation the day before, Mr. Pichai, Google’s chief executive, and Vera Jourova and Thierry Breton, two senior European Union politicians, discussed how to combat Russian state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.
For Friday, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister called on Meta, Apple, Netflix, and Google to block access to their services inside Russia in order to further isolate the nation from the world. “We need your assistance,” he said in his letter to YouTube. American leaders have also expressed a desire to see Russian propaganda curbed in the United States.
“What strikes me is that the power of the platforms is simply so unambiguously acknowledged,” Ms. Schaake said of her observations. “I don’t remember ever seeing such a high-level political drive to get corporations to do more in the past.”