Policy

Silicon Valley enabled Russian state propaganda. Now it’s too late.

There are steps Facebook and YouTube could have taken to limit RT and Sputnik’s reach years ago. They didn’t.

Sputnik office

Social media giants could have taken any number of soft actions over the years that would have deprived Russian propaganda of oxygen.

Photo: Mladen Antonov/Getty Images

Jack Dorsey’s beard was not yet Rasputin-esque when he sat down for his first Senate hearing in September 2018. Seated to his right was Sheryl Sandberg, and over his left shoulder, a few rows back, lurked Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist whom Twitter would ban from the platform the next day.

It had been a year since the world found out about Russian efforts to turn Americans against each other during the 2016 U.S. election, and Dorsey and Sandberg were on the Hill to explain what their companies had done since to ensure it never happened again.

One big change Dorsey shared: Twitter blocked Russia Today and Sputnik from advertising on the platform shortly after the Russian interference plot became public. Not only that, Dorsey said, but the company had also donated the $1.9 million it made from those outlets to charity. That seemed to satisfy Twitter’s inquisitors in the Senate.

For the next four years, though, not a single other major U.S. tech platform followed suit — that is, until now. Over the course of the past week, Meta and Google have blocked RT and Sputnik throughout the EU, Russia and Ukraine. They’ve barred them from advertising or making money from ads, and Meta and Twitter have moved to limit their visibility in users’ feeds worldwide.

Shocking no one, on Thursday RT America laid off its staff with euphemistic flourish, citing “unforeseen business interruption events.” Russia, meanwhile, has retaliated against Silicon Valley’s actions by banning Facebook entirely.

Silicon Valley’s response to the war has been both forceful and speedy. But it doesn’t change the fact that these very companies also enabled Russian state propaganda for years before the fighting broke out. That’s even despite Russia’s actions in 2016 and the director of National Intelligence report on Russian interference in 2017 and the Mueller report in 2019 and the ongoing global information war the Kremlin has been openly waging on U.S. tech platforms ever since.

It didn’t have to be this way. Social media giants could have taken any number of soft actions along the way that would have deprived Russian propaganda of oxygen without requiring Facebook or YouTube to block them entirely. For one thing, prioritizing trustworthy information over engagement across their platforms would have helped.

“A lot of the things that get rid of spammers and bad actors in general would also hurt RT and Sputnik,” said Jeff Allen, a former member of Facebook’s integrity team and co-founder of the Integrity Institute think tank. “RT bats above its weight on social media, relative to Google search. There are systems that could have been adopted much earlier that would have made it more difficult for RT to get attention.”

But of course, that’s not the world that Facebook and YouTube have created. And so, RT now has millions of subscribers and followers on both platforms. When Meta decided last week to demote RT and other Russian state media, it was because the company had “no choice,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s former head of Civic Integrity, tweeted. Facebook “needed to at least partially undo the damage that years of recommending these entities have done (and the scores of permanent Page followers they created),” Chakrabarti wrote.

Facebook and YouTube also missed an obvious chance to ride Twitter’s coattails and cut off Russian state media from ads in 2017. At Facebook, at least, that’s not because it didn’t consider it, but because it worried about how it would have to apply such a policy globally to other state media outlets like the BBC, said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former public policy director. “How do you start drawing the line around what state media is OK and what’s not?” she said, recalling those conversations. Instead, Facebook announced in 2019 that it would begin labeling state-media outlets, a step toward transparency that didn’t require limiting anyone’s reach.

It’s worth wondering what impact tech platforms can even have in weakening an outlet like RT, at least inside Russia. After all, an organization funded by the Russian government hardly relies on YouTube ads to survive. “It’s important to distinguish between steps that are symbolically useful versus steps that have a real effect on the information environment,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.

Still, even symbolic steps have consequences. Now, tech giants have found themselves in, arguably, a worst case scenario: Having allowed Putin’s propaganda machine to grow online for years, they had no choice but to take a blunt instrument to it when a war broke out. Now, Russia has cut off access to a critical communication tool for millions of people. Which is, of course, what these companies wanted to avoid all along.

Policy

How 'Zuck Bucks' saved the 2020 election — and fueled the Big Lie

The true story of how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $419 million donation became the 2020 election’s most enduring conspiracy theory.

Mark Zuckerberg is smack in the center of one of the 2020 election’s multitudinous conspiracies.

Illustration: Mike McQuade; Photos: Getty Images

If Mark Zuckerberg could have imagined the worst possible outcome of his decision to insert himself into the 2020 election, it might have looked something like the scene that unfolded inside Mar-a-Lago on a steamy evening in early April.

There in a gilded ballroom-turned-theater, MAGA world icons including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks and former president Donald Trump himself were gathered for the premiere of “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Fintech

From frenzy to fear: Trading apps grapple with anxious investors

After riding the stock-trading wave last year, trading apps like Robinhood have disenchanted customers and jittery investors.

Retail stock trading is still an attractive business, as shown by the news that crypto exchange FTX is dipping its toes in the market by letting some U.S. customers trade stocks.

Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief moment, last year’s GameStop craze made buying and selling stocks cool, even exciting, for a new generation of young investors. Now, that frenzy has turned to fear.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev pointed to “a challenging macro environment” marked by rising prices and interest rates and a slumping market in a call with analysts explaining his company’s lackluster results. The downturn, he said, was something “most of our customers have never experienced in their lifetimes.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Broadcom is reportedly in talks to acquire VMware

It hasn't been long since it left the ownership of Dell Technologies.

Photo: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Broadcom is said to be in discussions with VMware to buy the cloud computing company for as much as $50 billion.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.

Podcasts

Should startups be scared?

Stock market turmoil is making VCs skittish. Could now be the best time to start a company?

Dark times could be ahead for startups.

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

This week, we break down why Elon Musk is tweeting about the S&P 500's ESG rankings — and why he might be right to be mad. Then we discuss how tech companies are failing to prevent mass shootings, and why the new Texas social media law might make it more difficult for platforms to be proactive.

Then Protocol's Biz Carson, author of the weekly VC newsletter Pipeline, joins us to explain the state of venture capital amidst plunging stocks and declining revenues. Should founders start panicking? The answer might surprise you.

Keep Reading Show less
Caitlin McGarry

Caitlin McGarry is the news editor at Protocol.

Latest Stories
Bulletins