Major social media companies including YouTube, Facebook and TikTok moved to ban Russian state media outlets in Europe, blocking Moscow’s biggest megaphone for influencing public opinion about the war in Ukraine in a critical region on its borders.
The actions are likely to provoke retaliation from Russia, which has already restricted social media services in response to previous measures the companies have taken to curtail the Kremlin’s ability to spread misinformation and propaganda about its invasion of Ukraine.
“Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we’re blocking YouTube channels connected to RT and Sputnik across Europe, effective immediately,” Google Europe said in a tweet. “It’ll take time for our systems to fully ramp up. Our teams continue to monitor the situation around the clock to take swift action.”
Google’s actions came after Facebook and TikTok said on Monday they would shut down access to RT and Sputnik in Europe. Facebook’s announcement came in a tweet from its president for global affairs, Nick Clegg. TikTok confirmed its decision to The Washington Post late Monday.
State media outlets RT and Sputnik have relied on American social networks, as well as Chinese-owned TikTok, to gain massive followings and reach audiences outside Russia’s borders. RT’s Facebook channel has more than 7 million followers, though it’s not clear how many were located in the European Union. RT’s YouTube account has 4.65 million followers in English and 5.94 million in Spanish. RT and Sputnik also run prominent television channels and radio stations in several countries.
But Silicon Valley companies have long been reluctant to curtail state-owned media outlets, even when they are mouthpieces for a foreign government’s distorted worldview. Instead, they have chosen to label outlets as state media.
At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the companies continued fact-checking individual pieces of content and resisted calls for outright bans.
Misinformation from Russian state-backed media outlets proliferated, including misleading articles alleging that Ukrainian armed forces attacked civilians or tried to destroy critical infrastructure in separatist regions or in Russia, according to research from the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University. At least 30 articles speculated that Ukraine may have started or plans to develop nuclear weapons, warning about “what nuclear bombs in the hands of the far right lead to,” or alleged that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had a “dangerous nuclear fantasy,” Oxford found. Russian state media has also tried to paint a picture of Ukraine as being associated with far-right organizations and Nazis, though Zelensky is Jewish.
But the pressure on social media companies to use their power as gatekeepers mounted swiftly. First, the Ukrainian government asked the firms to ban the channels within its borders, and the companies complied. Then on Sunday, the E.U. banned the state media channels and began to send letters to tech giants asking for a ban. The companies fear European regulators because Europe intends to regulate social media companies with two sweeping laws next year. Therefore, the demands by Europe were likely to set up a confrontation where the companies were caught between two tough choices: Ban state media in the E.U. and face a full-scale block of their services in Russia, which are used by activists and everyday people to communicate during the crisis, or refuse to ban and incur the wrath of European regulators.
Russia is also increasingly bearing down on the tech giants, pressuring them to allow its state media outlets on their platforms or face consequences. The country’s Internet censorship agency on Tuesday morning said it sent letters to Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, demanding that they immediately lift the restrictions in Europe on RT and Sputnik. The agency accused American companies of restricting the free flow of information online.
The letters came days after Russia began to slow traffic to Facebook’s services within the country in retaliation for fact-checking state media reports, according to the company. Twitter also has said that it is being restricted for some people in Russia.
On Friday, Facebook and YouTube banned advertising from Russian state media, an effort that prevented the companies from earning revenue from content that supported the invasion.