Impossible Tradeoffs: Russia Edition
How should platforms approach what is happening in Ukraine?
This morning when I went to 7-eleven to pick up physical copies of the papers I found myself standing by the car for a minute while a light rain came down. I was overcome by just how much history we are living through. (And this was even before President Biden announced he was nominating Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first female, Black Supreme Court Justice)
Like many of you, I’ve been glued to CNN all week watching the events in Ukraine unfold. I’m devastated that we’ve gotten to this point and concerned about what it means for the future. There are so many aspects of this invasion to discuss. What’s happening on social media feels important but not the most important thing. However, it’s what I’m going to focus on because it’s what I know best.
There are plenty of amazing stories and resources out there to learn about how the companies are fighting (or missing) mis and disinformation spreading on their platforms. I’ve linked to some in the what I’m reading section below, but my friends at the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab are some of the best to follow if you want to know more about the actors and content that is spreading.
What I want to focus on is sharing some insight into how these platforms are approaching these challenges, some of the impossible tradeoffs they face, and some of the things they could perhaps do more of to help. The answers to these questions are not easy and while I’m going to share my opinion of what I think I’d do if still at a place like Meta, I can also understand why others would make different decisions. Having these conversations out in the open will help in figuring out the right ways forward.
Over the last few years, the role of tech platforms in the geopolitical space has shifted. More and more we are seeing a willingness by world leaders to pass laws and use the threat of shutdowns as either a way to get the platforms to do what they want and/or as a form of hard power against another nation. India banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps. Trump tried to. Nigeria banned Twitter until it would comply with local law. Apple and Google removed the Navalny app from their stores. The US is upset with the EU for trying to pass laws that mostly only affect American companies. And this week, Facebook and other tech companies started complying with Russia’s new foreign IT law (Politico Pro subscription required) which requires them to have a local presence and a designated representative for the government to work with.
Making a decision to comply with local law when facing any government, but particularly one like Russia is complicated. On one hand, these tools might be some of the only ones that opposition voices have that aren’t controlled by the state. Companies have to gauge how likely it is that the government would actually shut down their platform which would make it harder for activists to access these tools. Moreover, many of these companies have employees on the ground who could be in danger if they don’t comply. On the other hand, the Russian government is clearly playing the tech companies. They have and will continue to ask for content to be taken down. They might ask for data on their citizens. If opposition content is going to be taken down either way why not push back and stand up to the government in the hopes that its citizens might get so upset that it might backfire on them?
The companies made the choice (usually after much deliberation with experts - internal and external) to comply and stay up. However, they are taking other steps against pro-Russian media accounts such as subjecting their content to fact-checking which has led Russia to say that they are limiting access to Facebook. Justin Hendrix argued in an op-ed that the tech companies should suspend accounts pushing propaganda from Russia until they withdraw from Ukraine.
At the moment I do agree with the tech companies' decision to comply in order to stay up. I do think Putin will have no problem blocking them and still might do it outright vs just limiting access. However, it has made me think more about what should online sanctions look like in times like this?
I like Justin’s idea about removing their accounts. If that could lead to shutting the platforms down they could look at just geoblocking the accounts so that they’re only available in Russia and not the rest of the world. Moreover, I think we should also look beyond tech companies. When Trump was de-platformed last January, apps like Parler were kicked off of Amazon Web Services. While that concerns me from a free speech standpoint, I have absolutely no problem with something like that happening to punish a government like Russia for invading Ukraine.
However, Russia of course has been planning for these possibilities and is trying to build up its own capacities for the internet. This story in the Economist says, “Mr. Putin wants a Russian internet that is secure against external threat and internal opposition.”
Perhaps then that means we need to go to the ICANN level where a sanction can be placed on a country where they wouldn’t have access to domain names, name servers, and other infrastructure of the internet. I’m starting to get well outside my own knowledge of exactly how the governance of all of this works so some of you might be yelling at your screen right now that this wouldn’t be possible. All I’m saying is maybe it’s worth thinking about.
In addition to these types of questions, there’s also the question of what types of tools and support can/should the tech companies provide. Many of them are already doing great work on providing security tools for users but I would also implore them to find a way to better help journalists, civil society, and others to monitor how content about the invasion is spreading on their platforms. In this past, this is something the Crowdtangle team would have jumped at doing to help key partners. Meta should absolutely find a way to do this again (versus their current approach of cutting off access requests.) Props to NewsWhip for making their tools available for this.
None of these are easy questions and I would urge you when reading about some of the decisions that these companies make to understand how they are weighing the various tradeoffs. I call them impossible because most people don’t want to have to make the choices between them, but the reality is the companies have to. Discussing how and why they did transparently is important.
PS: Are you going to SXSW in Austin? If so, I’ll be there doing a keynote about tech and elections on March 11. I’d love to see you.
What I’m Reading
The Intercept: Facebook Allows Praise of Ukraine's Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion
Washington Post: Social media fuels new type of ‘fog of war’ in Ukraine conflict
Journal of Democracy: What Putin Fears Most
Foreign Policy: Russia Launches Social Media Offensive Alongside Missiles
CNN+: Launching with CNN+ includes The Land of the Giants: Titans of Tech: This five-part series investigates the meteoric rise of Meta (formerly Facebook), Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
Brazil Fake News Law: Tech companies push back
Foxwell Digital: Dear Meta: An Open Letter From Direct Response Advertisers
NextDoor: Our commitment to transparency
Daphne Keller: Twitter thread on good online citations for the point that the coded language for hate speech online evolves very fast
Freedom House: Tech and Democracy Roles
Researcher on tech & elections
Policy & Advocacy Officer
Community Engagement Specialist
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
March: UK Online Safety Bill
March: EU Signatories Finalize Code of Practice on Disinformation
March 9 - South Korea elections
March 11 - 20: SXSW, Austin, Texas
March 19 - Timor-Leste elections
March 26 - Zimbabwe Elections
March 27 - Hong Kong & Lebanon Elections
April: The Gambia elections
April 3 - Hungary, Serbia, Belgrade City Assembly elections
April 10 and 24 - France elections
May 3 - Ohio Primary (Open Senate race)
May 9 - Philippines elections
May 17 - North Carolina and Pennsylvania Primaries (Open Senate races)
May 21 (On or before) - Australia elections
May 23 (tentative): World Economic Forum, Davos
May 24 - Alabama and Georgia Primaries (AL open Senate race, GA Warnock defending seat)
May 29 - Colombia elections
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms