Russia signals a new era in its war against Western internet platforms.
Last week, Russia’s internet censor called on YouTube to roll back restrictions on CSKA, a Russian football club, saying the move hurts ordinary Russians. Embedded in that request was something remarkable: outright labeling YouTube as a Western “information warfare” tool.
Many Western commentators believe that the Kremlin is talking about Western information warfare for propaganda purposes, that it is just engaging in classic Russian fantasy. The Kremlin, after all, cannot think that Washington controls social media platforms. It’s wrong. Putin genuinely views American social media platforms as tools of the American state — and Russia’s internet censor says that explicitly portends an even more aggressive attack on Western technology in the weeks to come.
The Russian government issued numerous censorship orders before and during its illegal war against Ukraine, requiring foreign internet companies to censor news about the war, news about Russian forces killing Ukrainian civilians, the deaths of Russian soldiers , And much more. In recent days, the rhetoric of Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet censor, has become more paranoid and conspiratorial. Along with Roskomnadzor’s comment on YouTube, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry called restrictions imposed by Western social media platforms on Russian state media an “information attack, even terrorism by the Russians”. ‘information’ from the West. This comment was followed by more misinformation about Putin’s illegal, aggressive and large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow’s recent words draw on a longer history. When democracies watched the Arab Spring, they saw the use of micro-blogs and websites to stage protests and praised the so-called Twitter revolution. To be clear, it really wasn’t a “Twitter revolution” – it was a term coined by American pundits, and the organization was performing more on local websites and platforms than foreign ones – yet it stuck in western minds as proof of the liberation of the internet. To obligate. For example, Alec Ross, adviser to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in 2011 that the Arab Spring had demonstrated that “dictatorships are more vulnerable than they have ever been before.” He said it was a “bridge too far” to label the Egyptian protests a “Facebook revolution”, but said the internet was an “accelerator” of the Arab Spring.
The view from the Kremlin was very different. Putin fundamentally views opposition movements as illegitimate, believing instead that they must all be funded by foreign powers. When the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East in 2010-2012, or when Russians organized on VK (a popular platform in the country) and Facebook to protest Putin’s election rigging and return to the presidency in 2011- 2012, or when Ukrainians mobilized for democracy in 2014, partly on Facebook and Twitter, Putin saw only one thing: American social media platforms facilitating regime change.
Nevertheless, Roskomnadzor rarely, if ever, calls a social media platform a Western “information warfare” tool.
Now, any actions the platforms take against Russian state media will inevitably play into Putin’s view that they are puppets of Washington, and the Kremlin may target social media companies more aggressively than ever before. It’s an exceptionally complex environment to navigate, with no easy questions or easy answers. For example, social media companies have restricted Russian state media as a way, they believe, to limit the spread of Russian disinformation during the war – and also, likely, as a signal to the West of their opposition to Putin’s (second) invasion. from Ukraine. However, it also visibly angered the Russian government. The Russian internet censor ordered the blocking of many foreign social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as well as many foreign websites (BBC News, Deutsche Welle, etc.). While Moscow’s filtering capabilities are flawed and citizens may try to use workarounds, this leaves Russians with fewer options to access and share information openly. Domestic alternatives like VK are used less than some Western platforms (YouTube, the most popular platform in Russia, leading the way), and they are certainly more infiltrated and monitored by Russian intelligence and security services.
The Putin regime’s recent moves against foreign platforms appear to signal a stronger-than-ever commitment to cementing state control over Russia’s internet environment. Business must prepare for increased cyber threats, information and even human intelligence as Moscow operates under this worldview; the Russian government’s goals continue to lean less toward intellectual property theft and far more toward surveillance, information theft, and disruption of the operations of social media companies. And on the government side, the United States, other Western governments, and Ukraine need to recognize just how far this information battleground is shifting toward tech companies — and how badly the Kremlin might want to weed them out.
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