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4 Reasons Why Putin’s War Has Changed Big Tech Forever

The conflict has permanently upended how the major platforms do business.

By , a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s program on democracy, conflict, and governance.
A demonstrator poses with an installation depicting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a protest in London on Oct. 25, 2021.
A demonstrator poses with an installation depicting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a protest in London on Oct. 25, 2021.
A demonstrator poses with an installation depicting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a protest in London on Oct. 25, 2021. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Videos from the battlefield, leaked drone surveillance, and other forms of digital communications have made Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the most internet-accessible war in history, turning Twitter, TikTok, and other internet platforms into primary sources of news on the war. But that’s not the only way in which this is a watershed moment for internet companies. Russia’s war in Ukraine is forcing them to confront geopolitical realities they have largely managed to avoid. While digital platforms have long faced pressure from governments around the world to take down content, block political critics, and open local offices on which government control can be more easily exerted, Western pressure and Russia’s crackdown are accelerating a paradigm shift for how tech firms operate. Major fault lines have arisen, with far-reaching consequences for how internet platforms do business.

The reason for this shift is clear: In the digital age, internet platforms are inextricably linked to power. Governments use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok to spread propaganda, sow division, intimidate their critics, and otherwise further their political agendas. Likewise, civic movements and activists turn to the same platforms to mobilize their followers, call out despots, and organize mass actions against governments. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a good portion of the world online, has accelerated the centrality of digital platforms in politics and society. These dynamics contribute to making Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the first major interstate conflict of the COVID-19 pandemic era—a signal moment for internet platforms.

In particular, four factors indicate how the war in Ukraine is fundamentally upending how platforms do business.

Videos from the battlefield, leaked drone surveillance, and other forms of digital communications have made Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the most internet-accessible war in history, turning Twitter, TikTok, and other internet platforms into primary sources of news on the war. But that’s not the only way in which this is a watershed moment for internet companies. Russia’s war in Ukraine is forcing them to confront geopolitical realities they have largely managed to avoid. While digital platforms have long faced pressure from governments around the world to take down content, block political critics, and open local offices on which government control can be more easily exerted, Western pressure and Russia’s crackdown are accelerating a paradigm shift for how tech firms operate. Major fault lines have arisen, with far-reaching consequences for how internet platforms do business.

The reason for this shift is clear: In the digital age, internet platforms are inextricably linked to power. Governments use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok to spread propaganda, sow division, intimidate their critics, and otherwise further their political agendas. Likewise, civic movements and activists turn to the same platforms to mobilize their followers, call out despots, and organize mass actions against governments. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a good portion of the world online, has accelerated the centrality of digital platforms in politics and society. These dynamics contribute to making Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the first major interstate conflict of the COVID-19 pandemic era—a signal moment for internet platforms.

In particular, four factors indicate how the war in Ukraine is fundamentally upending how platforms do business.

The war has shattered the neutrality myth. For most of their existence, internet platforms argued they were neutral platforms that only distributed information—and that they weren’t responsible for their content. Even after many years of pressure on Facebook for its role in spreading disinformation and hate speech around the world and facilitating election interference by foreign state actors, CEO Mark Zuckerberg notably declared in a 2018 interview that it was not his company’s responsibility to ban Holocaust deniers or conspiracy theorists from broadcasting on the platform. Only in 2020 did Facebook begin to reverse course by introducing modest content policing. At the same time, however, major internet platforms continued to push back against government efforts to hold them responsible for content, no matter how vile, arguing that as information distributors, they do not exercise publisher functions. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2020 that Twitter started labeling China’s and Russia’s state propaganda and disinformation outlets as government sources.

The war in Ukraine has destroyed what was left of the neutrality argument. Reflecting a growing consensus that not taking a side in the Ukraine conflict is akin to serving as an instrument for an oppressive regime, Big Tech has taken sweeping steps to curtail the Kremlin’s propaganda. YouTube announced a global block of Russian state media outlets and has removed over 1,000 channels and 15,000 videos. Facebook restricted access to official Russian outlets RT and Sputnik in the European Union and banned Russian state media from running ads or monetizing the platform worldwide. Twitter has paused advertising in Ukraine and Russia, and it has reduced the visibility of tweets posted by Russian state-affiliated media outlets. But it’s not just U.S. social media platforms that have taken action; other tech firms have followed suit. Apple has suspended all product sales in Russia. Audio streaming company Spotify closed its offices in the country and removed all content from RT and Sputnik. Netflix has also suspended its service in Russia. The decision to finally drop the pretense of neutrality is ushering tech companies into a disorienting new era. No longer are they simply operating as neutral providers of technology. They are now making explicit value judgments regarding how governments use their platforms in wartime and what types of speech violate the bounds of hate, violence, and propaganda. These actions contradict prior content policies and indicate that companies are hastily rewriting their rulebooks—often in an ad hoc manner—in response to recent events.

The idea that tech companies are apolitical providers of platform services was always flawed, but the Ukraine war has driven a stake through their presumed neutrality.

Government coercion grows sharply. Pressure from authoritarian governments for internet platforms to censor content—often as a condition for continuing to do business in a particular market—isn’t new, nor is platforms’ history of acquiescing. In Vietnam, for example, Facebook agreed to drastically increase its censorship of local “anti-state” posts after government authorities took the company’s servers offline. In Nigeria, the government suspended Twitter for seven months until the service agreed to open an office in the country and work with the government to establish a “code of conduct”—something activists fear could jeopardize freedom of expression.

In the runup to the war, Russian coercion appeared to accelerate. In September 2021, Russian agents came to the home of Google’s top executive in Moscow to deliver a chilling ultimatum to “take down an app that had drawn the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin within 24 hours or be taken to prison,” according to the Washington Post. In the wake of Facebook’s decisions to block Russian propaganda outlets but allow users in Ukraine to call for Russian soldiers to be killed in the war, a Russian court labeled parent company Meta as “extremist” and banned Facebook and Instagram in the country. But Russia is far from the only country stepping up its coercive measures against online platforms. The Indian government authorized special commando raids against Twitter offices in reprisal for the platform labeling a ruling party member’s post “manipulated media.” Turkey has imposed draconian content removal and data localization laws enforced by criminal penalties. These represent growing coercive realities that internet companies are ill-prepared to confront.

Faustian bargains and unsavory compromises are in the spotlight. Of course, not all tech companies will enact policies that run against authoritarian governments, preferring to accommodate them and thereby preserve access to lucrative markets. Many firms continue to seek compromises that violate human rights and put their users at risk. For example, while Chinese-owned TikTok has followed U.S. platforms in banning Russian propaganda, the firm has also chosen to over-comply with Kremlin censorship demands by removing 95 percent of its content for Russian users. The result is that a vital source of information about the war has been taken away from the Russian public. In India, Twitter suspended hundreds of user accounts linked to farmers’ protests and blocked hundreds of pro-farmer tweets deemed controversial by the government. Google has pursued similar policies in India, sharing data with the police that led to the arrest of a climate activist who had edited a shared Google Doc providing resources for protestors.

An emerging strategy for repressive governments is to cultivate substitute apps and platforms that will more pliably do their bidding. In China, the ban of Google and Facebook around 2010 helped pave the way for WeChat to become the country’s leading digital platform. Conveniently, WeChat also serves as a powerful surveillance and censorship instrument for the Chinese state, used by its national security agencies to monitor public and private speech and filtering out billions of messages based on keyword triggers. In Russia, local search engine Yandex restricts which news services can post headlines to just 15 Kremlin-approved media outlets. And in India, the government has been actively promoting the communications platform Koo as an alternative to Twitter due to its displeasure with Twitter’s content policies. The unfortunate reality is that there are plenty of companies—U.S. platforms or local ones—willing to make unsavory bargains with repressive regimes for market share and profit.

New platform responsibilities emerge in war. Online platforms’ prominent role in mediating information on the Ukrainian conflict raises a related question: What obligations do internet companies have under international humanitarian law? Do frequent social media postings of images depicting Russian prisoners of war violate Geneva Conventions protocols against exposing prisoners to public curiosity? Do internet shutdowns or platforms’ self-censorship aid and abet war crimes by making civilians unable to access information about life-saving humanitarian measures or impending missile strikes? Such norms are still nascent, but the dominant role of digital platforms in Russia’s war has suddenly brought these issues into the spotlight, and they’re unlikely to go away.

For years, tech companies have avoided making hard choices about where they operate and how they deal with repressive governments. Instead, they have sought to have it both ways—quietly caving in to censorship demands and agreeing to opaque deals with authoritarian governments, even as they tell Western audiences they are supposedly standing up for free expression around the world. That approach was always hypocritical and worked only as long as not too many people paid attention. The war in Ukraine, Russia’s vicious crackdown on dissent, and growing pressure in the West on companies to curtail activities in authoritarian countries has made tech companies’ muddled stances unsustainable.

Tech platforms not only face increasing pressure to come up with consistent policies about handling information in wartime but will also need to figure out how to navigate an increasingly fraught global environment in which various governments are becoming ever more intent on asserting their views and interests. Western countries are pursuing new rules to restrict how tech platforms operate and to weigh in more heavily on the proper balance between allowing free expression and countering disinformation and propaganda. Companies will also have to contend with pressure from investors to justify forgoing sources of revenue by exiting difficult markets—though this pressure could also work in reverse if institutional investors press for divestment on social responsibility grounds. In the meantime, autocratic regimes will continue to exert their leverage over tech firms, threatening to shut them out of their markets or favor local alternatives that can be more effectively controlled. It all makes for a very unpredictable and volatile situation in the coming years.

The idea that tech companies are apolitical providers of platform services was always flawed, but the Ukraine war has driven a stake through their presumed neutrality. For leading tech companies, it’s uncharted territory from here.

Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s program on democracy, conflict, and governance and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration.

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