Since 2016, it’s been conventional wisdom that social media algorithms are primed to amplify content that is outrageous, offensive, or even dangerous: to spread misinformation about COVID-19 and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, or to incite events like the capital riots. Casey Newton, who writes the newsletter Platformer, has long argued that the relationship between social media and democracy is more complex. Through the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the legalization of gay marriage, we have seen how social media can used to rally people around a common progressive cause. Now, in Ukraine, we’re watching a small country use the internet as a force multiplier.
On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Casey Newton about how social media is helping defend democracy in Ukraine.
We spoke on Thursday. On Friday, Russia began blocking Facebook and Twitter.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: Were you expecting that Russia would own the internet narrative of the invasion of Ukraine?
Casey Newton: To some extent, yes. The conversation about the Russian information operation since 2016 has been to lionize it. There was this assumption that if an invasion happened, it would be coupled with some sort of mass manipulation campaign. I think we really have to credit the Biden administration for calling Putin’s shot in advance because it just made it exponentially harder for Putin to gain any ground in controlling this narrative. When the Biden administration is saying “This guy’s about to invade a country for no reason,” and then he does it, it’s very hard to launch a misinformation campaign that’s going to change anybody’s minds.
How is Russia going to get their message out?
Up until three or four days ago, there was a sort of easy answer to this question, which is, they would get it out on RT and Sputnik. In 2005 they started this TV channel called RT, and they started building up presences on all the major platforms. And they were really clever about it.
It’s not just 24/7 Russians complaining about Yankee imperialist pigs; it’s crazy weather videos, and cute animals, and other viral junk to attract an organic audience. And then, every once in a while, they slip in that Americans are capitalist dogs, and over time they’re able to kind of build up the propaganda machine. For years these platforms have faced calls to remove these networks entirely or at least make it harder for people to find them. The platforms resisted that for a long time. Starting in about 2017 they did start to take some measures. But then the invasion happened and the leaders of Ukraine started tweeting, “Please get rid of these propaganda networks!” which are all over Europe. . And finally, everybody started to act in concert, just as they have on so many things related to the invasion. And now you cannot find these channels on many TV networks and services around the world. They have been pulled from the App Store and the Google Play Store throughout Europe. Russia is not going to be able to use these to get its message out.
Ukrainians have repeatedly used the internet to showcase the horror of Russian attacks, but they’ve also showed a kind of uncowed irrepressibility that plays particularly well on an internet always looking for viral moments. President Zelenskyy’s cellphone videos from the street, or the sailors at Snake Island reportedly telling a Russian warship, “Go fuck yourself ,” or Ukraine’s sassy official Twitter account, which asked for donations in cryptocurrency and immediately raised millions.
The thing that we hate about the internet is that it is so big and it is so fast, and so if I want to say something terrible, I can reach a lot of people in a hurry with that. And yet that same dynamic is incredible for fundraising. When you have the attention of most of planet Earth, you can raise an insane amount of money in a hurry. I’m somebody who worries about the lack of friction on the internet basically every day, and yet here is a case where it is clearly being used for good.
In Ukraine, we are seeing how people sort of on the margins, the underdog in this war against Russia, are able to appeal directly to a large global audience and rally the entire Western world to their side. If you think that social networks can only be used for bad, then I think the situation in Ukraine should give you reason to reflect.
This is not the first social media war. This was very much happening in Syria, but it didn’t move international opinion and policy in the same way. In terms of what makes this different, there’s the obvious question of race, but I also wonder if there’s something in the way we are consuming social media now, or in the way it’s being deployed?
It’s hard for me to think of something about the design of these systems that has changed fundamentally between Syria and Ukraine. I do think that there is a significant degree of racism in the way that we have been treating these stories. I also think that we just sort of allot our attention differently based on, in part, the geopolitical importance of the question.
Something that I think is different here is, to the extent that there was something novel in the social media dynamics, look at the Ukraine Twitter account. They are tweeting stuff like, “What do you think of Russia? Tag them.” They are posting memes. And they are calling on platforms directly saying, remove this from your App Store, remove that, ban Russia from the internet. They’ve used Twitter for activism in a way that I cannot recall another country or another group of freedom fighters doing. And that speaks to the power of Twitter in particular to really focus the energy of the internet on a particular subject.
The major platforms have largely worked alongside Ukraine and Western governments, or acquiesced to their demands. Facebook restricted access to RT and Sputnik. Twitter has added state media labels to their links. Google and Apple have disabled live traffic data, so it can’t be used for military targeting. Why do you think these platforms have been so quick to act in support of Ukraine and the West?
I write about these platforms more like they are quasi-states than they are corporations because they are just so big. They have to practice diplomacy like any other state, and essentially what we’ve learned is that they are aligned with the Western international order. And it makes sense. These businesses only exist because of the rule of law, because of democracy and the right to self-determination. We shouldn’t find it unusual that they are aligning themselves with those groups. More practically, they’re aligning themselves with everyone with the power to regulate them.
There’s another question for tech companies that have employees in Russia or do business there—it’s called the landing law. Can you explain what that is and the quandary it puts some of these companies in?
There’s this new trend among authoritarian regimes that says, “If you want to operate in our country, you’re going to have to incorporate a local business here that has a physical office, and you’re going to have to designate a local representative that we can complain to if we find something that we don’t like on one of your platforms.”
In practice what this means is that there is now a person who can be physically intimidated if the government doesn’t like what they see. In Russia, with the landing law, the whole idea is they want to be able to pressure these platforms into doing their bidding no matter what it is.
Last November, when Russia had elections, there was an app that helped people coordinate their votes against Putin. Putin insisted that platforms remove this app from the App Store, and initially they resisted. But then, he intimidated all of their employees and threatened them with jail or worse, and lo and behold, those apps got removed from the App Store. That’s a really scary precedent.
Do you think any of this—the landing law, the intimidation around the App Store—makes these companies reassess doing business in Russia? It’s a huge market.
I was talking with a high-level platform executive about this question last year, and they were saying that journalists always approach this as a binary question, like you’re either there or you’re not. And if a country does one bad thing, you should pull out and really stick it to them, but the flip side of that is that the moment that you do that—to the extent that your services are used by journalists, human rights workers, nonprofit organizations, members of the resistance, rival politicians—you’re taking away those tools and services and infrastructure. So, could you maybe do more good by finding a way to remain? There are a lot of people at the big platforms who feel like, to the extent that they can do that dance and remain in the country, they can do the most good.
If you contrast Russia with China, Russia has much worse control over its internet. It hasn’t built up nearly the same infrastructure to surveil people, to censor people, which means that, in practice, you could probably get much better information on YouTube, for example, than you could on Russian state media. YouTube might be the best shot that many average Russians have for getting independent media.
Have you talked to people inside the big platforms about what is happening and how their content and actions are contributing to it?
In the past week I have spoken with folks at Google, Facebook, and Twitter about what’s going on, and what they have signaled to me is that they really want to help. Whatever they can do with their platforms, they want to. There are some practical questions, there are some fears about, for example, removing RT and Sputnik from their services completely. They are waiting to take cues from the Biden administration. If the Biden administration asks them to do something, they are going to be much likelier to do it. They are very committed to doing what they can to help Ukraine via their platform policies.
Do you think this conflict changes the relationship between these platforms and the U.S., or the EU—places that have been trying to rein them in and regulate them?
I think it’s been a moment for the platforms to say, “Look at the good we can do. You want us in the world. We can help fight for freedom.” That’s been the message they want to send. The platforms have had such a rough half decade that any moment where they can try to take a leadership position and try to do something that regulators will praise them for, they are very excited about. Frankly, none of them have gone rogue with their policies. Everybody is sort of following each other’s lead, and the lead is coming from the U.S. government, and from the EU, and the U.K. This has shown the degree to which they are not like nation states. In this case, they really are acting like corporations in war time that are trying to support the domestic politics.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.