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The War in Ukraine Exposes Social Media as a Tool of the State

Charis Papaevangelou is a PhD candidate at the University of Toulouse, France, where he is studying the political economy of social media platforms’ regulation; Nikos Smyrnaios is an Associate Professor at the University of Toulouse, France where he teaches theory, history, sociology and economics of the media and the internet.

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From the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, social media has been flooded with testimonies of victims and refugees, videos of battles and bombings, memes about the war, messages, and initiatives of support; but also organized propaganda campaigns that are transmitted instantly around the globe.  It is yet another real-time case study of how social media plays a role in “information warfare,” defined as “the battle waged in the news media and on social media to bolster popular support; persuade and induce the sympathy of potential allies; and simultaneously spread confusion, uncertainty, and distrust in the enemy’s population.” 

But in the war in Ukraine and the West’s effort to contain Russia, information warfare is not limited to conventional propaganda. It also relies on deplatformization, i.e., the denial of access to distribution channels such as social media and content delivery platforms. The power of the social media platforms to instantly remove entities- from a former US President to Russian state media- is a power that can be wielded as a weapon. This conflict reveals the degree to which this capability makes social media platforms important stakeholders in geopolitical conflicts and information warfare, and– because of their scale and power over the public sphere– increasingly useful tools of the state. 

The Evolution of Social Media in Times of Crisis 

Monopolistic digital platforms have instrumentalized the liberal ethos to enhance their business models: they have presented themselves as the means for people to exercise their freedom of expression with little, if any, constraints, whereas their main objective was to profit from hosting free content to sell eyeballs to advertisers. This ideological construct has been used for years by tech entrepreneurs and pundits to counter proposals for public regulation of Big Tech. It is based on the assertion that “the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” an idea effectively framed as “the marketplace of ideas.”  

This argument was seemingly supported by historical events such as the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, which saw extensive anti-government protests in the Middle Eastern and North Africa. At the time, social media played a key role in disseminating information and organizing protests, ostensibly realizing democratization through technology. But this version of history did not last. Researchers would later discern that social media “were additional communication tools for activists, rather than drivers of the demonstrations themselves” and that Big Tech was collaborating with repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring started and after its revolutions faded. 

Now we know that Facebook, far from a tool of liberation, amplified the spread of misleading and hateful content to the point of facilitating genocide, and that social media generally helped spread terrorist propaganda and totalitarian ideology across the world. In the US, from Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal to the proliferation of COVID-19 anti-vax rhetoric and conspiracist theorists on YouTube, the so-called “techlash” has altered the public perception of platforms. Even tech company executives are asking states for clearer regulation and voluntarily introducing stricter policies to govern their services. 

Consequently, as Yochai Benkler has argued, it is now established that “the entire framework of ‘marketplace of ideas’ or ‘truth will drive out lies’ is a fairy tale.” Far from the typical Habermasian ideal, where a democratic consensus would be formed through the confrontation of rational arguments, the digital sphere is a battleground where multiple actors try to impose their interpretation of the world.  

The Western World Against Russia 

In this context, digital platforms provide an ideal space for “disinformation warfare,” i.e., coordinated campaigns to manipulate public opinion, either by spreading disinformation and lies or by massive reporting to game the algorithms and remove unwanted content, despite not violating any policy. 

The Russian state has a long tradition of such practices. In the context of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian-backed information hubs have engaged in propaganda for war, i.e., advocating for and supporting a war of aggression, a practice prohibited by international and European law. Based on this, the Council of the European Union filed a regulatory amendment on March, 2 2022, prohibiting the distribution of any content from RT and Sputnik, whose main broadcasting channels are digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. 

Following that decision, Nick Clegg, Meta’s Vice-President for Global Affairs, announced that the company’s platforms (Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram) would restrict access to RT and Sputnik across the EU, and would demote content from their Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts. A tweet he posted on the subject explicitly framed the company’s move as a response to the EU’s requests. Shortly after, Alphabet (Google, YouTube) followed suit, with YouTube blocking Russian-funded state media globally. Additionally, Reuters divulged internal communication at Meta about a change in its hate speech policy that would allow calls for violence and death for Putin and “Russian invaders” in Ukraine; Russia retaliated by threatening to shut Meta’s services if they allowed such calls and, even, moved to declare it as an “extremist organization.” What is more, Google’s Play Store, Apple’s App Store, and Microsoft’s Store have taken down the apps of those state-controlled media, and Amazon’s cloud services have quietly disabled the creation of new customers’ accounts in Russia and Belarus.  

The intervention of the EU with regard to Russian state media is only a small element of the sweeping sanctions imposed by Western countries on Russia, but it highlights how social media and online content delivery services are effectively used as an expansion of geopolitical power. A case in point is when Cédric O, France’s Secretary of State for the Digital Economy, met with “social networks and search engines to discuss operationalizing the fight against Russian propaganda online” as per his tweet. Thus, monopolistic digital platforms– already threatened with regulation that would curtail their business models– are now under state pressure and entangled in the ongoing conflict between the West and Russia. 

This situation poses problems for the exercise of freedom of expression and the pluralism of information available in the European public sphere. Indeed, the argument made by the Council of the European Union to justify banning Russian outlets does not limit itself to denouncing propaganda for war, which is a sound legal basis under international law; but rather extends itself to “the propaganda (that) has repeatedly and consistently targeted European political parties, especially during election periods.” In other words, the EU qualifies as propaganda the fact that RT and Sputnik seek to influence Europeans’ attitudes and actions in political matters, something that can be defined as legitimate political speech protected by the right of freedom of expression. In France, for instance, research has shown that participants in the Yellow vests protests relied on RT and Sputnik for information to counter what they considered government propaganda disseminated by mainstream media against them. Therefore, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) said it fears the effects of this spiral of censorship on freedom of expression in Europe. 

The moves by Western tech platforms appeared to embolden Russia to further clamp down on its domestic information sphere. Russia’s countermeasures first targeted Facebook for its refusal to stop extensive fact-checking of state-owned media. What began as throttling of its services in the first week of the invasion has now become an outright ban from the country; Twitter was the second target. The legal basis for this counterattack was a law passed by the Russian government on March, 4 2022, effectively criminalizing the dissemination of “fake” information— as deemed by Russia’s internet regulator, Roskomnadzor– like calling the “special military operation” in Ukraine an invasion. TikTok, along with other digital platforms and news media organizations, decided to suspend its services in Russia instead of complying with the new law.  

New Tools of the State

The examples mentioned here emphasize a crucial aspect of the power that platforms now hold, along with its risks. The tech firms’ control over centralized information flows makes them important stakeholders for geopolitical conflicts and information warfare. Arguably, the power of monopolistic platforms is convenient to state actors precisely because it facilitates the type of top-down censorship the European Union has mandated. In a way, this story reveals a process of “normalization” of the internet, which has been underway for several years. As such, the digital public space is no longer an exception: instead, it undergoes constant political pressures and state control as traditional media and communications have been for decades, if not centuries.

While digital gatekeepers have proven helpful to Western authorities in their bid to act against Russian-backed propaganda, this has a significant cost in terms of reduced freedom of expression and pluralism of information available to European citizens, setting a potentially dangerous precedent. The platforms have also proven to be an easy target for Russia to further clamp down on dissent. These measures risk creating two separate and siloed public spheres, thus feeding a growing mutual disbelief. 

Additionally, this war finally settled the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas or, at least, divulged its deceptive use by the tech industry to justify their business models to garner more users and advertisers. More “truthful” content would never outdo disinformation, and platforms knew it, or they would not have content policies in the first place. The enforcement thereof is what is complicated, because it is innately tied to politics. In this case, platforms chose a side, and EU public authorities made it easier for them, providing them with the necessary public legitimacy. It is another vivid example of platforms’ power following their bans on former President Trump’s accounts after his incitement and encouragement of the Capital riot on January 6, 2021. 

Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what would these platforms do if they had to act against someone who was not so blatantly malicious. For now, the power they hold is real, as is the capacity of governments or dangerous actors to exploit it. It seems, then, that social media platforms are more malleable than ever to external interests, due to their loss of legitimacy in recent years and the threat of regulation in the US and Europe. While Nick Clegg took pains to emphasize Facebook is not a government, but a company, the platforms look more like tools in the exercise of state power today than they did before the invasion of Ukraine. The long term implications are difficult to discern in the fog of war.

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