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What measures online platforms are taking in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and why this matters for other countries

As platforms react to the Ukraine crisis with many proactive measures, can the same be asked of them in other countries?

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heads into its sixth day, major social media platforms and tech companies have been actively taking various measures to combat misinformation and ensure the safety of users in these regions. For example, Facebook has restricted access to Russia’s state-controlled media RT and Sputnik across the EU, Twitter is pausing advertisements in both countries, and YouTube has blocked Russian media channels from ad monetisation.

At the moment, the effect of these measures on Ukraine, Russia, and the EU is known, but there are implications of the measures for other countries as well that might not be immediately evident.

What are the implications for other countries?

  • Many of the measures announced in the last couple of days are unprecedented and indicate what social media platforms are capable of doing and the power they hold in public discourse. This raises questions about how far platforms can and will go when it comes to issues in other countries.
  • The measures taken by the various platforms can force countries to come up with new regulations to safeguard themselves from global platforms in the future. For example, when Twitter de-platformed Donald Trump in early 2021, Indian MP Tejaswi Surya called for a review of how internet intermediaries are regulated saying: “If they can do this to POTUS, they can do this to anyone.” Governments around the world are likely to think along similar lines in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.
  • Foreign governments might start encouraging local alternatives to global platforms because of the control they have over these platforms. This will not only deprive consumers of choice and quality but could lead to a splintering of the global internet.
  • In the present case, Russia had asked Meta to stop “censoring” media by fact-checking state-run media outlets, but Meta rightly refused to comply with the order. But if the US was in the same situation as Russia and had ordered Meta to do something, will the platform have refused? The parameters that platforms use to accept or decline government orders remains unclear for the most part. Or will YouTube ever consider Fox News in similar length as Russian-state controlled media because of its affiliation to right-wing parties, and demonetise its videos in the future?

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  • While in this specific situation, platforms might have the favour of the people and western governments, the same might not be true in the future. In that case, what will platforms do? Will they bend to the will of the people and governments or do what they believe is “right” like they are claiming to be doing now?
  • Now that various platforms have shown that they can act proactively and in a timely fashion to take down harmful content, the same might be asked of them by other governments when it comes to their countries. For example, according to India’s IT Rules, social media platforms must proactively use automated tools to remove harmful content including content that the government has deemed illegal in the past, but platforms have refused by citing the technical challenges and the challenge to free speech this poses. But if platforms are capable of engaging in proactive measures elsewhere, why not in India, the government can ask. 

What are some of the measures taken by platforms in Russia and Ukraine?

Meta

Meta has published a blog that is updated every day with the various measures taken by the company including:

  1. Restricting access to RT and Sputnik across EU: On February 28, Meta said that it will restrict Russian state-controlled media RT and Sputnik across the EU given the exceptional nature of the current situation.
  2. Demonetisation of state-controlled media: Meta said that it is prohibiting ads from Russian state media and demonetizing their accounts.
  3. Fact-check labels on posts by state-controlled media: Meta said that it has refused an order from the Russian authorities to stop the independent fact-checking and labelling of content posted on Facebook by four Russian state media organizations.
  4. Restrictions on accounts based on Ukraine government request: Meta on February 27 said that it restricted access to several accounts in Ukraine, including those belonging to some Russian state media organisations at the request of the Ukrainian government and is reviewing more requests.
  5. Takedown of network spreading misinformation and fake news: Meta on February 27 announced that it took down a network run by people in Ukraine and Russia for coordinated inauthentic behaviour. “They ran websites posing as independent news entities and created fake personas across many social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, Odnoklassniki and VK,” the company said.
  6. Protection from Belarusian-linked Ghostwriter: Meta said that it is rolling out privacy and security measures to help people in Ukraine and Russia protect their accounts from being targeted by Ghostwriter, a threat actor linked to the Belarusian government.
  7. Encrypted one-to-one chats on Instagram: Meta said that it has made encrypted one-to-one chats available on Instagram for all adults in Ukraine and Russia starting February 28. End-to-end encryption is already available on Meta’s WhatsApp and Messenger and it should allow users in Ukraine to communicate safely without fear of interception.
  8. Special operations centre: Meta said that it has established a special operations centre staffed by experts from across the company, including native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, to respond faster to the rapidly-evolving conflict by removing violating content and misinformation quicker.
  9. Expanded fact-checking team: Meta said that it is working with third-party fact-checkers in the region to debunk false claims and has expanded its fact-checking capacity in Russian and Ukrainian languages The company is also working to provide additional financial support to Ukrainian fact-checking partners.
  10. Working with local experts: Meta said it is working with a network of local and international partners to address emerging risks. “We recognize that local context and language-specific expertise is essential for this work, so we will remain in close communication with experts, partner institutions and non-governmental organizations,” the company said.
  11. Outdated images warning: Meta is warning users in the region when they try to share some war-related images that its systems detect are over one year old.
  12. Account safety features: 
    • Profile lock: A new tool on Facebook will allow users to lock their profiles in one step. People cannot download, enlarge or share profile photos of locked profiles nor can they see posts or photos on the profile.
    • Non-searchable friends list: Facebook has temporarily removed the ability to view and search the friends’ lists of Facebook accounts in Ukraine to help protect people from being targeted.
    • Privacy and security reminders: Meta said that is sending notifications to everyone on Instagram in Ukraine about privacy and account security such as tips on how to keep accounts secure through strong passwords and two-factor authentication. Meta is also sending notifications of privacy and security features available on Messenger and WhatsApp.

In response to Meta’s measures, Russia is throttling access to Facebook and Instagram in the country.

Twitter

In a thread, Twitter shared the following measures taken by the platform:

  1. Labels on Tweets sharing links to Russian state-affiliated media websites: Twitter on February 28 said that it is adding labels on Tweets that share links to Russian state-affiliated media websites and is taking steps to significantly reduce the circulation of this content on Twitter. “Since the invasion, we’ve seen more than 45,000 Tweets a day sharing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets,” Yoel Ruth, head of site integrity at Twitter said.
  2. Pausing advertisements in Ukraine and Russia: Twitter said that it is temporality pausing ads in Russia and Ukraine to ensure critical public safety information is elevated and ads don’t detract from it.
  3. Suspension on some tweet recommendations: 
  4. Search and home timeline prompts: 
  5. Proactive review of content for platform manipulation: Twitter is proactively reviewing tweets to detect platform manipulation and is taking enforcement action against them.
  6. Monitoring of high-profile accounts: Twitter said it is monitoring the accounts of journalists, government officials, activists, and other high-profile accounts to prevent targeted takeover or manipulation.

In response to Twitter’s measures, the Russian government has blocked the platform in the country.

Google

According to Reuters, Google has enacted the following measures:

  1. No ad monetisation by Russian state-controlled media: Google on February 26 barred Russia’s state-owned media outlet RT and other channels from receiving money for ads on their websites, apps and YouTube videos.
  2. Russian media cannot buy ads: Google also said that Russian media will not be able to buy ads through Google Tools or place ads on Google services.
  3. Fewer recommendations: YouTube also said that videos from these media outlets will come up less often in recommendations.
  4. Blocking of channels in Ukraine: YouTube blocked certain Russian state-controlled media channels in Ukraine at the request of the Ukrainian government.
  5. Resources: Google has also shared a thread on Twitter highlighting the various resources available to users to safeguard themselves online.

Russia has demanded that Google restore access to Russian media’s YouTube channels in Ukrainian territory.

Apple

Apple on March 1 said that it is taking the following measures:

  1. Removing RT and Sputnik from App Store: Apple has removed apps of Russia’s state-controlled media RT and Sputnik outside of Russia
  2. Halting product sales: Apple suspended both online and in-store sales of Apple products in Russia and has also stopped exports into sales channels in Russia.
  3. Disabling traffic and live incidents in Apple Maps: Similar to Google Maps, Apple has disabled traffic and live incidents in Apple Maps “as a safety and precautionary measure for Ukrainian citizens.”
  4. Limiting Apple Pay: Apple said that it has limited Apple Pay and other services but did not elaborate

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

Update (2 March, 1:20 pm): Added measures taken by Apple

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