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.