WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Russia’s war in Ukraine plays out for the world on social media, big tech platforms are moving to restrict Russian state media from using their platforms to spread propaganda and misinformation.
Google announced Tuesday that it’s blocking the YouTube channels of those outlets in Europe “effective immediately” but acknowledged “it’ll take time for our systems to fully ramp up.”
Other U.S.-owned tech companies have offered more modest changes so far: limiting the Kremlin’s reach, labeling more of this content so that people know it originated with the Russian government, and cutting Russian state organs off from whatever ad revenue they were previously making.
The changes are a careful balancing act intended to slow the Kremlin from pumping propaganda into social media feeds without angering Russian officials to the point that they yank their citizens’ access to platforms during a crucial time of war, said Katie Harbath, a former public policy director for Facebook.
“They’re trying to walk this very fine line; they’re doing this dance,” said Harbath, who now serves as director of technology and democracy at the International Republican Institute. “We want to stand up to Russia, but we also don’t want to get shut down in the country. How far can we push this?”
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, announced Monday that it would restrict access to Russia’s RT and Sputnik services in Europe, following a statement by European Union President Ursula von der Leyen over the weekend that officials are working to bar the sites throughout the EU.
Google followed Tuesday with a European ban of those two outlets on YouTube.
The U.S. has not taken similar action or applied sanctions to Russian state media, leaving the American-owned tech companies to wrestle with how to blunt the Kremlin’s reach on their own.
The results have been mixed.
RT and other Russian-state media accounts are still active on Facebook in the U.S. Twitter announced Monday that after seeing more than 45,000 tweets daily from users sharing Russian state-affiliated media links in recent days, it will add labels to content from the Kremlin’s websites. The company also said it would not recommend or direct users to Russian-affiliated websites in its search function.
Over the weekend, the Menlo Park, California-based company announced it was banning ads from Russian state media and had removed a network of 40 fake accounts, pages and groups that published pro-Russian talking points. The network used fictitious persons posing as journalists and experts, but didn’t have much of an audience.
Facebook began labeling state-controlled media outlets in 2020.
Meanwhile, Microsoft announced it wouldn’t display content or ads from RT and Sputnik, or include RT’s apps in its app store. And Google’s YouTube restricted Russian-state media from monetizing the site through ads, although the outlets are still uploading videos every few minutes on the site.
By comparison, the hands-off approach taken by TikTok, a Chinese platform popular in the U.S. for short, funny videos, has allowed pro-Russian propaganda to flourish on its site. The company did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Facebook’s efforts to limit Russian state media’s reach have drawn ire from Russian officials. Last week, Meta officials said they had rebuffed Russia’s request to stop fact-checking or labeling posts made by Russian state media. Kremlin officials responded by restricting access to Facebook.
The company has also denied requests from Ukrainian officials who have asked Meta to remove access to its platforms in Russia. The move would prevent everyday Russians from using the platforms to learn about the war, voice their views or organize protests, according to Nick Clegg, recently named the company’s vice president of global affairs
“We believe turning off our services would silence important expression at a crucial time,” Clegg wrote on Twitter Sunday.
Russia has spent years creating its sprawling propaganda apparatus, which boasts dozens of sites that target millions of people in different languages. That preparation is making it hard for any tech company to mount a rapid response, said Graham Shellenberger at Miburo Solutions, a firm that tracks misinformation and influence campaigns.
“This is a system that has been built over 10 years, especially when it comes to Ukraine,” Shellenberger said. “They’ve created the channels, they’ve created the messengers. And all the sudden now, we’re starting to take action against it.”