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Big tech grapples with Russian state media and propaganda

WASHINGTON — As Russia’s war in Ukraine unfolds around the world on social media, major tech platforms are working to block Russian state media from using their platforms to spread propaganda and misinformation.

After the president of the European Union called for a ban on Russian state media, a wave of tech companies blocked channels from their platforms.

Google announced on Tuesday that it was blocking the YouTube channels of these outlets in Europe “with immediate effect”, but acknowledged “it will take time for our systems to be fully in place”. Russian RT and Sputnik accounts have also been disabled in Europe on China’s TikTok, a video-sharing platform, a company spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday. The actions followed Meta’s announcement that it would ban state media from accessing its platforms, Instagram and Facebook.

So far, tech companies have also offered smaller changes in other parts of the world: limiting the reach of the Kremlin, labeling this content more so people know it comes from the Russian government, and cutting off the organs of the Russian state of their advertising revenue. previously doing.

The changes are a careful balancing act intended to prevent the Kremlin from spreading propaganda in social media feeds without angering Russian officials to the point that they deprive their citizens of access to wartime platforms, a said Katie Harbath, former director of public policy. for Facebook.

“They try to walk that very fine line; they do this dance,” said Harbath, who is now director of technology and democracy at the International Republican Institute. “We want to stand up to Russia, but we don’t want to be closed in the country either. How far can we push this? »

The US government has not applied sanctions to Russian state media or called on tech companies to act, leaving US tech companies to wrestle with how to mitigate the Kremlin’s reach on their own.

The results have been mixed.

RT and other Russian state media accounts are still active on Facebook in the United States. Twitter announced on Monday that after seeing more than 45,000 daily tweets from users sharing links to Russian state-affiliated media in recent days, it will add tags to content on Kremlin websites. . The company also said it would not recommend or direct users to Russian-affiliated websites in its search function.

Over the weekend, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company announced it was banning ads from Russian state media and had taken down a network of 40 fake accounts, pages and groups that posted talking points. pro-Russian. The network used fictitious people posing as journalists and pundits, but didn’t have much of a following.

Facebook started labeling state-controlled media in 2020.

Meanwhile, Microsoft announced that it would not display content or advertisements from RT and Sputnik, or include RT’s apps in its app store. And Google’s YouTube has blocked Russian media from monetizing the site through ads, although media still upload videos every few minutes to the site.

On TikTok, a popular Chinese platform in the United States for short, fun videos, state-affiliated media are not labeled as such. And pro-Russian pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation around the war flourished on his site.

A recent video posted on RT’s TikTok channel, which is still active in the US, features a clip of Steve Bannon, a former top adviser to former President Donald Trump who now hosts a podcast with a penchant for misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“Ukraine is not even a country. It’s kind of a concept,” Bannon said in the clip, echoing a claim by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “So when we talk about sovereignty and self-determination, it’s just a corrupt realm where the Clintons have turned into a colony where they can steal money.”

Already, Facebook’s efforts to limit the reach of Russian state media have drawn Russian ire. Last week, Meta officials said they had rejected Russia’s request to stop fact-checking or labeling messages published by Russian state media. Kremlin officials responded by restricting access to Facebook.

The company also rejected requests from Ukrainian officials who asked Meta to remove access to its platforms in Russia. This would prevent ordinary Russians from using the platforms to learn about the war, voice their opinions or organize protests, according to Nick Clegg, the company’s newly appointed vice president of global affairs.

“We believe disabling our services would silence an important expression at a crucial time,” Clegg wrote on Twitter Sunday.

More aggressive labeling of state media and measures to minimize their online content could help reduce the spread of harmful material without cutting off a key source of information, said Alexandra Givens, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington nonprofit organization.

“These platforms are a way for dissidents to organize and push back,” Givens said. “The clearest indication of this is that the regime tried to shut down access to Facebook and Twitter.”

Russia has spent years building its sprawling propaganda apparatus, which has dozens of sites targeting millions of people in different languages. This preparedness makes it difficult for any tech company to mount a rapid response, said Graham Shellenberger of Miburo Solutions, a company that tracks misinformation and influence campaigns.

“It’s a system that’s been built over 10 years, especially when it comes to Ukraine,” Shellenberger said. “They created the channels, they created the messengers. And suddenly now we’re starting to take action against it.

Redfish, a Facebook page labeled as a Russian state-controlled media outlet, has built up a mostly American and liberal following of more than 800,000 followers over the years.

The page has posted anti-American sentiment in recent days and sought to downplay the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “military operation” and devoting several posts to highlighting anti-war protests across the country. Russia.

A Facebook post also used an image of a map to highlight airstrikes in other parts of the world.

“Don’t let the Eurocentrism of the mainstream media dictate your moral support for the victims of war,” the message read.

Last week, US Senator Mark Warner of Virginia sent letters to Google, Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter urging them to curb these Russian influence campaigns on their websites.

“In addition to Russia’s established use of influence operations as a tool for strategic influence, information warfare is an integral part of Russian military doctrine,” Warner wrote.

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Klepper reported from Providence, RI AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.