In “the wake of the Russian Federation’s illegal invasion of Ukraine,” a set of letters sent to Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok, Twitter and Alphabet by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on the technology platforms to take a “heightened posture towards exploitation of your platform[s] by Russia and Russian-linked entities engaged in information operations,” noting that in past conflicts Russia used social media to “sow false narratives” and “cover up evidence of war crimes by distorting online conversations with false claims, conspiracy theories, and doctored media.”Warner-Letters-2-25-2022
Senator Warner’s letter to Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, focused in particular on how YouTube is being used by the Russian state and other “malign actors” associated with it, even benefiting from monetization features:
Unfortunately, your platforms continue to be key vectors for malign actors – including, notably, those affiliated with the Russian government – to not only spread disinformation, but to profit from it. YouTube, for instance, continues to monetize the content of prominent influence actors that have been publicly connected to Russian influence campaigns. Just yesterday, for instance, my staff was able to find RT, Sputnik and TASS channels’ content specifically focused on the Ukraine conflict to be monetized with YouTube ads – including, somewhat perversely, an ad by a major U.S. government contractor. Meanwhile, Google’s wider ad network continues to support influence outlets such as Sputnik and TASS1, directing advertising dollars from unwitting U.S. brands like Best Buy, Allbirds, and Progressive to entities whose ties to Russian influence activity has been well-documented for over five years. And according to the ad transparency organization Check My Ads, Google even continues to serve ads for sanctioned influence actors like Southfront – a matter that I have separately referred to the Department of Treasury and Department of Justice for their attention.
The Senator urged YouTube and the other platforms to take a number of actions, including establishing mechanisms for Ukrainian public safety entities to disseminate emergency communications; furnishing account monitoring and security resources to Ukrainian government; humanitarian, and public safety institutions; surging “integrity teams, including those with language expertise in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Romanian, and German, to monitor your platform for malign influence activity related to the conflict;” give special attention to rooting out inauthentic accounts; and establish better channels for civil society partners to share information about “malign efforts utilizing your platforms.”
“Unfortunately, your platforms continue to be key vectors for malign actors – including, notably, those affiliated with the Russian government – to not only spread disinformation, but to profit from it.” the Senator wrote.
Yesterday, Facebook announced it would set up a “special operations center” to surge resources to the moderation of content on its platform. Russia announced on Friday it would limit access to Facebook inside its borders in retaliation for Facebook placing fact checks on content from its official accounts.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.