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’s 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. Fully 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 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.
This story also appeared in Protocol's Policy newsletter. It has been updated to include additional details about Meta's actions against RT and Sputnik in the E.U.