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Ukraine war: Russia's battle with Big Tech to control the invasion narrative is ramping up

File - A user holds a smartphone with an opened Facebook page in Moscow, Russia, June 10, 2021.
File - A user holds a smartphone with an opened Facebook page in Moscow, Russia, June 10, 2021.   -   Copyright  Pavel Golovkin/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
By Euronews  with Reuters

Russia is ramping up efforts to control the narrative over its invasion of Ukraine online and over the airwaves. Tech giants, however, are fighting back.

Facebook's owner Meta and Alphabet Inc's Google have both put restrictions on Russia's state-controlled media outlets in Ukraine and around the world.

On Friday, Russia said it would partially restrict Facebook, a move Meta said came after it refused a government request to stop the independent fact-checking of several Russian state media outlets. 

By Saturday, Twitter also said its service was being restricted for some Russian users.

Images and videos were slower to load on Facebook after the move was announced, according to users, while Facebook Messenger had long periods of not loading at all. 

On mobile devices, Twitter remained slow - it has been the subject of a punitive slowdown since March. Many state websites, including the Kremlin site kremlin.ru, have also suffered outages in recent days.

The stand-off is the latest step in an ongoing confrontation with Moscow where tech platforms risk government-imposed restrictions, as Russia seeks to censor dissidents while bolstering state-run media.

Facebook to TikTok: Media platforms under pressure

Major social, video, and live-streaming platforms from Facebook to TikTok and Twitch are coming under growing pressure to combat online falsehoods relating to the conflict, including the spread of misleading footage.

On Monday, Russia ordered Google to immediately restrict access to information posted as part of Google Ads that it said contained inaccurate information about casualties sustained by Russian forces and Ukrainian civilians.

State communications regulator Roskomnadzor said it had sent a letter to Google demanding that the offending materials be removed and said it would block internet resources that publish such information.

The escalation of Russia's clash with big tech comes days before a deadline Moscow set for major foreign tech companies to comply with a new law that requires them to set up official representation in the country, which could make it easier for the Kremlin to regulate platforms. 

It follows a series of fines and slowdowns imposed on platforms that the Russian government said failed to remove illegal content.

Ahead of the March deadline, an online list by Russia's communications regulator Roskomnadzor showed only Apple, Spotify and Viber had fulfilled all three requirements of the law as of 9.45 pm GMT on Sunday. These are: registering an account with the regulator, giving users a way to communicate directly with the company, and setting up a representative office.

Advertising bans, slowdowns and shutdowns

This month, Russia threatened the companies with an advertising ban if they do not comply. Harsher restrictions that could follow include speed slowdowns or outright blocks, Russian officials have said.

Tech giants are being placed in a difficult position as the conflict in Ukraine fuels an information war.

Companies indeed face the burden of weighing demands from Ukrainian officials and sympathisers worldwide, who have called on them to expel Russian users from their services to stop the spread of false information, while also preserving the access of dissidents to vital digital tools.

"Mark Zuckerberg, while you create Metaverse - Russia ruins real life in Ukraine! We ask you to ban access to @facebookapp and @instagram from Russia - as long as tanks and missiles attack our kindergartens and hospitals!" Ukrainian vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

Responding to the demands, Meta's Head of Global Affairs Nick Clegg tweeted on Sunday that turning off Facebook and Instagram in Russia would "silence important expression at a crucial time".

It was clear others across the tech landscape were grappling with similar dilemmas.

Just minutes after saying in a post on Sunday that the Telegram messaging app would consider restricting some channels for spreading false information, founder Pavel Durov said the company would no longer do so after receiving feedback from users.

Russia's state-run media under scrutiny

The activities of state-controlled media such as RT and Sputnik - which were hit with new EU sanctions on Sunday - has been a key source of conflict between Moscow and major tech platforms, as activists and politicians demanded the companies demonetise or ban the Kremlin-sponsored outlets.

Roskomnadzor has warned local media not to circulate what it called "false information" about Moscow's military operation, banning the use of the words "invasion" and "assault" to describe its attack on Ukraine. 

Russian tech giant Yandex has also started warning Russian users looking for news about Ukraine on its search engine about unreliable information on the internet.

Russia calls its actions a "special operation" that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy Ukraine's military capabilities and capture individuals who it sees as dangerous nationalists - something the government in Kyiv and Western powers say is baseless propaganda.

Amid Russia's invasion, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and its video streaming service YouTube have all taken new measures to restrict Russian state media from making money from ads on their sites.

Twitter, which banned ads from state-backed media in 2019, said it was pausing all ads in Russia and Ukraine to ensure the visibility of public safety information. Google, the world's biggest ad seller, also said it was not allowing Russian state media to sell ads using its tools.

Facebook and Google also said they had restricted access to some state media accounts in Ukraine at the request of the Ukrainian government. Google said on Sunday it had banned downloads of RT's mobile app in Ukraine in response to a government legal request.