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Russia and Big Tech are playing propaganda chicken

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy. Today, we’re talking about Russia’s escalating fight against U.S. tech giants and why “cutting Russia off” isn’t such a simple decision. Plus, Airbnb opens its doors to more refugees and Ukraine calls for an IT army.

Russia’s game of chicken

In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, calls have mounted for Facebook and other U.S. tech companies to curb or deplatform Russia’s propaganda arms.

On Friday, Russia sort of beat Facebook to the punch.

The country’s communications regulator announced plans to “partially restrict” Facebook in Russia due to allegations of “censorship” against Russian state media. In reality, Meta Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg said the company had simply fact-checked and labeled posts from pages run by Russian outlets. Russia didn’t like that and demanded Facebook remove the labels. Facebook refused. And here we are.

Facebook fact-checks news outlets all over the world. But Russia’s ham-fisted response reveals why banning the country’s state-sponsored social media accounts altogether isn’t so easy.

  • There’s a good argument to be made that pulling the plug would prevent Russia from continuing to spread lies as a pretext for war — and Meta, at Ukraine’s request, has suspended some Russian state media outlets from its platforms inside Ukraine. (After publication, Meta also said it would block RT and Sputnik throughout the E.U.)
  • “Would you defend the German state’s right to some confused notion of ‘free speech,’ even as Hitler sets out to destroy the lives of millions?” Justin Hendrix of Tech Policy Press wrote last week.

But Russia’s retaliation shows that it’s not just state speech at risk. Cutting off the Russian government could spark an even more extreme retaliation that ends up hurting Russian people who oppose the war.

  • Anti-war protests have broken out all over Russia, with Russian nationals rising up against their government’s actions. And they’re using social media not only to share what they’re seeing on the ground, but also to access information that doesn’t come from Russian state sources.
  • If something as small as fact-check labels could provoke that response, there’s no telling what the government would do if it found itself fully deplatformed.

It’s not just Facebook either.

  • Over the weekend, Twitter said some users in Russia were also unable to access its services.

It’s in Russia’s interest to play chicken with Big Tech, of course. By overreacting to a little thing, Russia seems to be betting that Facebook won’t do the big thing — that is, cut off its propaganda machine entirely.

  • If there’s one thing Mark Zuckerberg does seem to truly believe in, it’s that Facebook is an important tool for freedom of expression around the world.
  • If it looks like Russia might cut its people off from that tool at a time when they arguably need it most, it’s easy to see how Meta might opt not to make any drastic moves.

So far, Meta hasn’t caved to Russia’s demands. On Friday night, in fact, it took the added step of preventing Russian state media from running or making money from ads on its platforms. Google and Twitter have done the same. That’s encouraging, given tech giants’ track records.

  • Last year, Apple and Google removed an app linked to Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny from their app stores, after Russia reportedly threatened to hold their local staff criminally accountable.
  • Facebook has yielded to government orders in other countries, including in Turkey where it blocked posts from a Kurdish militia group that opposed the Turkish government.
  • Facebook told ProPublica at the time that it agreed to block the posts because otherwise it would have been completely shut down in Turkey.

This time, the whole world’s watching — and condemning — Russia. Facebook appears to be relying on that fact to back up its decision.

“Ordinary Russians are using Meta's apps to express themselves and organize for action,” Clegg said Friday. “We want them to continue to make their voices heard, share what’s happening, and organize through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.”

As long as they still can.

— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)

This story was updated to include Meta's additional actions against RT and Sputnik in the E.U.

In Washington

The FCC, DOJ and DHS have launched an investigation into companies with ties to Russia. That includes media and telecom companies as well as companies that provide fundamental infrastructure like submarine cable operators, according to CNN. The goal, according to one of CNN’s sources, is to "identify the universe of licensees that have Russian ownership that should be on our radar."

Select Russian banks are getting kicked off of SWIFT, the White House said Saturday. The U.S. is joining with the European Commission, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan in supporting the sanctions.

The majority of Americans have replaced their products sooner than they’d like because they couldn’t get them repaired, according to a new survey from Consumer Reports. No surprise, those products included a lot of smartphones. The group also found the vast majority of Americans support requirements ensuring a “right to repair.”


Corporate consolidation in tech and games doesn't just affect consumers, it impacts workers, their families, and the communities where they live. A union contract gives workers a voice in their future and the evolution of their industry.

Learn more

On Protocol

Ukraine is now accepting crypto donations. "Bitcoin is officially legit in Ukraine — just like this account and this retweet. Don’t mind the comments of our Russian ‘brothers,’” tweeted Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba.

President Biden’s State of the Union speech is scheduled for tomorrow. While there’s plenty of non-tech topics on Washington’s mind, our friends over at Braintrust put together a list of industry hopes for the annual speech.

Around the world

The European Commission said it would ban Russian state media, including RT and Sputnik, throughout the E.U. But it was not immediately clear how the Commission would enforce this, as it’s up to individual national regulators to block content.

Meta and Twitter also removed two “covert influence operations” that had been promoting pro-Russia narratives in Ukraine. The tech companies linked the operations to hacking groups in Russia and Belarus.

Ukraine is building an “IT Army,” its vice prime minister said over the weekend. “There will be tasks for everyone. We continue to fight on the cyber front,” Mykhailo Fedorov wrote in a tweet, calling on people to enlist.

Elon Musk said Starlink will send more satellite internet receivers to Ukraine. Musk was replying to a tweet from Federov asking for help. “While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand,” Fedorov wrote.

Ukraine’s leaders want Apple to cut off Russia. Fedorov also implored Apple CEO Tim Cook to “protect Ukraine” by cutting off the Russian supply of Apple products and services, including App Store access.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said the company will house 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine. That’s in addition to Airbnb’s recent commitment to house 40,000 Afghan refugees, double the number it first announced last summer. “The greatest need we have is for more people who can offer their homes in nearby countries, including Poland, Germany, Hungary and Romania,” Chesky said.

In the media, culture and metaverse

Russia is — still — using social media to drum up anti-Ukraine sentiment. Disinformation analysts told The Associated Press they’ve seen an uptick in anti-Ukrainian content from likely phony accounts. “When you see an 11,000% increase, you know something is going on,” said Dan Brahmy, CEO of disinformation detection firm Cyabra.

Meta is trying to cut down on misinformation about Russia and Ukraine by alerting users in the area when they’re about to share “war-related images” that appear to be more than a year old.

Content moderation is hard, part infinity: Trump’s Truth Social, which was supposed to be a haven for “free speech” despite its shockingly broad terms of service, is attracting criticisms of censorship, according to the Washington Examiner. The report cites an account mocking the app’s CEO, as well as a far-right radio host calling for the execution of those in government responsible for the COVID vaccine. (Doesn’t that include Trump himself?)

In data

13,000: That’s how many Toyota vehicles will be impacted by a suspected cyberattack on manufacturing facilities in Japan. The automaker suspended 28 production lines at 14 plants. While 13,000 might sound like a lot of vehicles — and it is — it still only represents around 5% of Toyota’s monthly output in Japan.

And here at home…

Protocol’s latest manual tackles a challenge facing all tech leaders: The Great Resignation. As Rhys Hughes, executive talent partner at GV, put it: “The experience of hiring is no longer an HR function. It’s now becoming the C-suite function.”


Corporate consolidation in tech and games doesn't just affect consumers, it impacts workers, their families, and the communities where they live. A union contract gives workers a voice in their future and the evolution of their industry.

Learn more

Thanks for reading — see you Wednesday.

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