by Rohan Sinha (’23) | March 21, 2022
On February 24, on the orders of President Putin, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the invasion, Russia has found itself increasingly isolated: the international community has imposed sanctions on the country, with the United States and European Union even sanctioning Putin himself. With Russia already receiving nearly universal condemnation on the world stage, Big Tech has taken an additional stand against the Russian government.
During political crises, social media often has the power to uncover injustices and atrocities. TikTok, for example, has enabled Ukrainians to provide the international community with immediate footage of the war and bring attention to the Russian military’s cruelty. In a WIRED magazine article, Ed Arnold, a research fellow in European security, even admitted that the majority of the information he received about the invasion was from TikTok.
But social media has also served as a tool for bad actors to create confusion and spread misinformation. Agnes Venema, a national security academic at the University of Malta, explained, “Disinformation is really aimed at trying to elicit an emotional response.” Given the public’s heightened emotions surrounding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, disinformation has a greater potential to thrive. This duality of social media has prompted debates over whether Big Tech, especially social media companies, should pull out of Russia altogether.
Despite this discourse, Big Tech has largely remained in the country, with a few caveats. Meta (formerly Facebook) blocked access to Russian government-controlled media outlets, including Russia Today and Sputnik, in the European Union. Furthermore, Twitter announced that it would label posts related to Russian government-controlled media with warnings, and YouTube revealed a plan to prevent Russia Today from profiting off any content on the platform.
However, the Ukrainian government urged more drastic measures, calling for Big Tech to cut access to social media in Russia altogether in hopes of adding internal political pressure on the Kremlin.
Experts acknowledge Ukraine’s concerns but also argue that limiting social media access in Russia could make the situation worse: people in Russia would have less access to information from the outside world and would thus become more susceptible to state propaganda, further fueling misinformation.
Ironically, Ukraine’s demands were met through action prompted by the Russian government. On March 11, Russia announced that it would block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram inside the country—a decision that will further stifle dissent.
Whether or not Big Tech’s actions are effective in increasing political pressure on the Kremlin, prominent tech companies have departed from a trend established over the past decade of appeasing authoritarian interests to maintain access to foreign markets. For example, Russia annexed Crimea, the southernmost part of Ukraine, in 2014. While the international community refused to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, Google Maps labeled the occupied territory Russian—but only on Russia’s version of the app. Now, by restricting Russian government-controlled media outlets themselves, Big Tech has pivoted to penalize the Kremlin for its military actions.
Big Tech’s response to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict also raises larger questions about the way social media companies operate in authoritarian countries, such as whether they should challenge dictators and consequently lose profit. As this global conflict unfolds, the world will continue to watch as Big Tech navigates such uncertainties.