Future Tense

Facebook Is Going Up Against Russia

Putin sits at a large table.
Russian President Vladimir Putin Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images

As Russia continues its illegal, aggressive, large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian internet censor said Friday that it will slow down (“throttle”) access to Facebook in Russia because the platform isn’t bending the knee to censorship demands. The Russian government wanted Facebook to remove restrictions on its disinformation-spreading, state-controlled media outlets Zvezda TV, RIA Novosti, Lenta.ru, and Gazeta.ru, and the company refused.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, wrote shortly thereafter, “Ordinary Russians are using our apps to express themselves and organize for action. We want them to continue to make their voices heard, share what’s happening, and organize through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.”

Advertisement

Sen. Mark Warner sent letters on Friday to the Alphabet (Google), Meta (Facebook), Reddit, Twitter, TikTok, and Telegram CEOs telling them to limit Russian information operations.
On Saturday, Facebook announced it is blocking all Russian state media ads on its platform. Though Facebook often parrots the line that it is a “neutral” actor in hosting content, these decisions—and Russian disinformation before and during the state’s attack—highlight that platforms are not neutral, ever, in who they provide services to and how they design their platforms.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s unclear whether Moscow will follow through on this threat against Facebook. Yet all this underscores the importance of internet and information control to the Kremlin, especially during armed conflict. As Putin continues his assault on Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to shape the information environment could include spreading disinformation through TV and radio, spreading disinformation through social media, launching cyberattacks on independent news outlets in Ukraine, and even targeting internet and cellular infrastructure to black out communications. And as with Russia’s threat against Facebook, that control also includes coercing social media companies—and if they don’t acquiesce, trying to limit access to them altogether.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Russian government has waged information warfare—a term its organizations, such as the Internet Research Agency, literally use—on Ukraine for years. (You may remember the Internet Research Agency from its attempts to sow chaos during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.) After the Maidan Revolution in 2014, where Ukrainians took to the streets to overthrow dictator and president Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin regime fabricated claims of human rights abuses in Ukraine as a false pretext for invading Crimea. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has launched a similar disinformation campaign across its information channels (many labeled by Facebook as state-controlled media), inventing patently false stories to make it sound as if Russia has a legitimate reason to attack Ukraine again.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Beyond inventing bogus pretexts for what is clearly an illegal, aggressive attack on an independent state, the Russian government’s propaganda and censorship efforts are also designed to shape the information environment. Moscow knows that in conflict, influencing, undermining, and controlling information flows can lend strategic advantage. When Russian troops attacked Ukraine, the Kyiv Post was immediately hit with an onslaught of cyberattacks; Russian military hackers have also launched distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against Ukrainian organizations, including government websites that provide vital sources of information. In many past conflicts, like the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, the Russian government and its proxies have launched widespread DDoS attacks to knock out websites and impede a country’s ability to spread news. The point is to sow chaos, impede a government’s ability to communicate with its people, impede citizens’ ability to communicate with one another, and undermine the press’ ability to share details of the conflict with Ukrainian citizens and the rest of the world.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Certainly, Russia does not stand alone in recognizing the importance of information in conflict: The Ukrainian government has called on Ukraine’s local hackers to protect infrastructure and spy on Russian troops. Yet the Russian government has a deep appreciation for the importance of information in conflict, and that’s precisely why Facebook and its media labeling have now entered the picture.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Kremlin is threatening to limit access to Facebook from within Russia, as Clegg’s post clearly stated, because Facebook keeps taking action against Russian state-owned media, like labeling them as state-controlled. Not to mention, broadly, Facebook takes down accounts that are part of Russian coordinated information operations. The platform is also a source of information about the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine, including such events as the Russian military reportedly attacking a kindergarten and an orphanage—news that, even in a country deeply plagued by state propaganda and censorship, does not reflect well on Putin.

Advertisement

Facebook is by no means the most popular internet platform in Russia; in fact, its user base is vastly outnumbered by that of YouTube and VK (known as the “Russian Facebook,” in part because its design looks wildly similar). Nonetheless, Facebook is an important platform to a number of Russians (38.9 percent population penetration, by some estimates), and it is an important communication platform for individuals such as journalists who have central roles in the information that makes its way to Russian citizens. Information posted on Facebook can of course be reshared to other popular social media networks as well. And on the strategic level, the Russian government is concerned about Facebook and other U.S.-incorporated social media companies because it sees American internet platforms as tools of the American state. Combined with antiwar protests in Russia, during which thousands of Russians have rallied against the regime’s attack on Ukraine, the Kremlin has plenty of reasons it wants to censor the news and opposing narratives.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The open question is whether Moscow will pull the trigger on trying to limit access to Facebook—and if it does, whether it can do anything meaningful. In 2021, when Twitter wouldn’t comply with Kremlin demands to censor posts on the Navalny protests, the Russian government throttled access to Twitter from within Russia. It partially worked, because access to the website was slowed. But because Moscow could not filter traffic as precisely as it would have liked, it also ended up slowing access to other websites by accident, such as those with similar URLs.

Still, it demonstrated that the Russian government has more widely deployed deep packet inspection technology on Russian internet networks and may therefore have more robust capabilities to implement these kinds of throttles and blocks going forward. This matters, too, because the Russian government’s domestic internet censorship regime has long been less technical than China’s and relies more on traditional forms of coercion (law enforcement arrests, confusing laws, intelligence service harassment) than technical website blocks.

No matter what happens, the Kremlin’s aim is clear: spread disinformation, block real news, and manipulate the information environment in any way possible to further its illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Advertisement