Last week, Russia’s internet censor demanded YouTube undo restrictions on CSKA, a Russian football club, saying the decision harms everyday Russians. Embedded in that demand was something notable: outright calling YouTube a tool of Western “information warfare.”
Many Western commentators think the Kremlin talks of Western information warfare for propaganda purposes, that it is merely engaging in classic Russian what-about-ism. The Kremlin, after all, couldn’t possibly think that Washington controls social media platforms. This is false. Putin genuinely sees American social media platforms as tools of the American state—and Russia’s internet censor saying this explicitly portends an even more aggressive attack on Western tech in the coming weeks.
The Russian government has issued numerous censorship orders in the leadup to and during its illegal war on Ukraine, demanding that foreign internet companies censor news about the war, information concerning Russian forces killing Ukrainian civilians, the deaths of Russian soldiers, and much more. In recent days, rhetoric from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet censor, has become more paranoid and conspiratorial. Alongside Roskomnadzor’s comment on YouTube, a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Western social media platforms’ restrictions on Russian state media “information attack, even information terrorism” from the West. This comment was followed by more disinformation about Putin’s illegal, aggressive, large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow’s recent words draw on a longer history. When democracies watched the Arab Spring, they saw use of micro-blogs and websites to organize protest and lauded the so-called Twitter Revolution. To be clear, it was very much not a “Twitter revolution”—that was a term constructed by American pundits, and organization happened more on local websites and platforms than on foreign ones—yet it stuck in Western minds as evidence of the internet’s liberating force. For example, Alec Ross, an adviser to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in 2011 that the Arab Spring evinced that “dictatorships are more vulnerable than they have ever been before.” He clarified that it was a “bridge too far” to call the Egyptian protests a “Facebook revolution” but said the internet was an “accelerant” for the Arab Spring.
The view from the Kremlin was much different. Putin fundamentally sees opposition movements as illegitimate, instead believing they must all be funded by foreign powers. When the Arab Spring swept 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 in part on Facebook and Twitter, Putin saw only one thing: American social media platforms facilitating regime change.
Nevertheless, Roskomnadzor rarely if ever outright calls a social media platform a tool of Western “information warfare.”
Now, any actions that platforms take against Russian state media will inevitably play into Putin’s view that they are Washington puppets, and the Kremlin may target social media companies more aggressively than ever before. This is an exceptionally complex environment to navigate, with no easy questions and no easy answers. For instance, social media companies have restricted Russian state media as a way, in their view, 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 of Ukraine. However, that has also visibly angered the Russian government. The Russian internet censor has ordered many foreign social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) blocked in addition to many foreign websites (BBC News, Deutsche Welle, etc.). While Moscow’s filtering capabilities are imperfect and citizens can try using workarounds, this leaves Russians with fewer options for openly accessing and sharing information. Domestic alternatives like VK are less widely used than some Western platforms (YouTube, the most popular platform in Russia, chief among them), 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 greater commitment than ever before to cementing state control over the internet environment in Russia. Companies must prepare for increased cyber, information, and even human intelligence threats as Moscow operates under this worldview; the Russian government’s goals continue to lean less towards IP theft and far more towards monitoring, stealing information from, and disrupting social media company operations. And on the government side, the U.S., other Western governments, and Ukraine must recognize just how much of this information battleground is shifting to technology firms—and just how badly the Kremlin might want to take them out.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.