Ukraine War Tests the Power of Tech Giants

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a defining geopolitical moment for some of the world’s biggest tech companies, as their platforms have turned into major battlefields for a parallel information war and their data and services have become vital links in the conflict.

Over the last few days, Google, Meta, Twitter, Telegram and others have been forced to grapple with how to wield that power, caught between escalating demands by Ukrainian, Russian, European Union and U.S. officials.

On Friday, Ukrainian leaders pleaded with Apple, Meta and Google to restrict their services inside Russia. Then Google and Meta, which owns Facebook, barred Russian state-run media from selling ads on their platforms. Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, also spoke with top European Union officials over how to counter Russian disinformation.

At the same time, Telegram, a widely used messaging app in Russia and Ukraine, threatened to shut down channels related to the war because of rampant misinformation. And on Monday, Twitter said it would label all posts containing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets, and Meta said it would restrict access to some of those outlets across the European Union to ward off war propaganda.

For many of the companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, the war is an opportunity to rehabilitate their reputations after facing questions in recent years over privacy, market dominance and how they spread toxic and divisive content. They have a chance to show they can use their technology for good in a way not seen since the Arab Spring in 2011, when social media connected activists and was cheered as an instrument for democracy.

But the tech companies face tricky decisions. Any missteps could be costly, adding more momentum to efforts in Europe and the United States to regulate their businesses or leading Russia to ban them altogether.

Executives inside the companies are making judgment calls about what to do, employees said. If Google, Meta, Twitter and others take some steps and not others, they might be accused of doing too little and looking halfhearted. But curbing too many services and information might also cut off ordinary Russians from the digital conversations that can counteract state-run propaganda.

“These companies want all the benefits of monopolizing the world’s communications with none of the responsibility of getting swept up in geopolitics and having to choose sides,” said Yael Eisenstat, a fellow at the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles think tank, who formerly led Facebook’s election integrity operations. In many ways, she said, tech companies are “in a no-win situation in the midst of an international crisis.”

Traffic in Kyiv last week, days before Google stopped displaying traffic information inside Ukraine out of concerns that it could create a safety risks.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Many of the companies have moved gingerly, said Marietje Schaake, a tech policy expert and former member of the European Parliament. While Google and Meta blocked Russian state media from selling ads on their sites last week, the companies did not bar the outlets, as many Western policymakers had urged.

As the conflict has ratcheted up, the companies have taken additional steps. On Sunday, Google’s Maps division stopped displaying traffic information inside Ukraine out of concerns that it could create safety risks by showing where people were gathering. Facebook announced that it had taken down a pro-Kremlin influence campaign and a separate hacking campaign targeting its users in Ukraine.

On Monday, Twitter began labeling all tweets containing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets so users would be aware of the information sources. Since the conflict in Ukraine began, users have tweeted links to state-affiliated media about 45,000 times a day, the company said.

Ms. Schaake, now the international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, said the measures were not enough. She said the companies must block Russian propaganda outlets and establish clearer policies about their beliefs in human rights and democracy that could be applied beyond Russia.

“The interventions under huge pressure also underline what has not been done for so long,” she said.

Others warned that there would be negative consequences if the platforms were blocked in Russia. “It’s the most important place for public debate about what’s going on,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and censorship expert. “Nobody would take it as a good sign if Facebook blocked access for Russian citizens.”

Google did not immediately have a comment. Twitter said it took its role in the conflict seriously. Facebook declined to comment.

Telegram’s experience illustrates the competing pressures. The app is popular in Russia and Ukraine for sharing images, videos and information about the war. But it has also become a gathering ground for war misinformation, such as unverified images from battlefields.

On Sunday, Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder, posted to his more than 600,000 followers on the platform that he was considering blocking some war-related channels inside Ukraine and Russia because they could aggravate the conflict and incite ethnic hatred.

Users responded with alarm, saying they relied on Telegram for independent information. Less than an hour later, Mr. Durov reversed course.

Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

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What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.

How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.

What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”

How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.

How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.

“Many users asked us not to consider disabling Telegram channels for the period of the conflict, since we are the only source of information for them,” he wrote. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

Inside Meta, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, the situation has been “chaotic” because of the volume of Russian disinformation on its apps, said two employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly. Russian experts on Meta’s security team, which identifies and removes state-sponsored disinformation from Facebook and Instagram, have been working around the clock and communicating regularly with Twitter, YouTube and other companies about their findings, the two employees said.

Meta’s security team has long debated whether to restrict Sputnik and Russia Today, two of Russia’s largest state-run media sites, on its platforms or label their posts so they clearly state their source. Russia Today and Sputnik are “critical elements in Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem,” according to a January report from the State Department,

Meta executives had resisted the moves, saying they would anger Russia, the employees said. But after war broke out, Nick Clegg, who heads global affairs for Meta, announced on Monday that the company would restrict access to Russia Today and Sputnik across the European Union.

Tech companies now face two main types of war-related demands from governments.

Russia is pressuring them to increasingly censor social media posts and other information flows inside the country. Moscow has already heavily restricted access to Facebook and Twitter, with YouTube potentially next. On Monday, Russia demanded that Google block ads carried on its platform related to the war. That followed an order on Sunday to lift restrictions on pro-Kremlin media outlets related to Ukraine, without saying how it would enforce the order.

At the same time, Western officials are pushing the companies to block Russian state media and propaganda. On Monday, the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland wrote to Meta, Google, YouTube and Twitter to ask them to suspend pro-Kremlin and official government accounts, including Russia Today and Sputnik.

“The online platform providers and tech companies need to take a stand as authoritarian regimes seek to weaponize the openness of our societies to undermine peace and democracy,” the letter said.

The entrance to Russia Today in Moscow. Credit…Yuri Kadobnov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In France, Cédric O, the country’s minister for digital policy, met on Monday with Susan Wojcicki, the head of YouTube. On a call a day earlier, Mr. Pichai, Google’s chief executive, and Vera Jourova and Thierry Breton, two top E.U. policymakers, discussed countering Russian state-sponsored disinformation.

Ukraine’s vice prime minister called on Meta, Apple, Netflix and Google on Friday to restrict access to their services inside Russia to isolate the country. “We need your support,” his letter to YouTube said. American policymakers have also made requests to clamp down on Russian propaganda.

“What strikes me is the power of the platforms is just so unequivocally recognized,” Ms. Schaake said. “I don’t ever recall seeing such a high-level political push for the companies to do more.”

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