Moscow retaliates as online giants take steps to stem disinformation

Getty Images / Yuichiro Chino

As Kremlin limits access to Twitter and Facebook, Western observers say the tech companies' moves are years late.

Several U.S. tech giants have taken steps to stem Russian-government disinformation and funding as tanks roll into Ukraine, drawing Moscow’s ire—and some praise for the “years-late” action by Western observers.

Saturday, YouTube said it would stop ad payments to “several Russian channels affiliated with recent sanctions,” among others, “in light of extraordinary circumstances in Ukraine.”

Also on Saturday, Twitter reported that Moscow was at least partially blocking access by Russian users, who have been using the platform to share news of the invasion’s progress. 

These followed a Friday announcement by Russia’s telecommunications agency that it had begun restricting access by Russian users to Facebook, whose officials said they had refused to stop labeling false information posts by four government-affiliated sites.

Disinformation watchdogs have complained for years that social media and tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet-owned YouTube aren’t doing enough to keep Kremlin-backed disinformation off their sites. But those calls took on new urgency after the attack on Ukraine began. 

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America and author of the book Like War, said the move was ​​"the right thing, years late, which is a recurring pattern for the companies."

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, has been publicly pressuring social media giants and other tech companies to do more to police Kremlin-based media operating on their platforms. 

On Saturday, he announced that “Twitter just made the decision to block Russians the opportunity to register new accounts in Russian Federation.”

 Defense One has reached out to Twitter for independent confirmation and will update when more information is available. 

Twitter did tweet that it was experiencing a service disruption in Russia. “We’re aware that Twitter is being restricted for some people in Russia and are working to keep our service safe and accessible,” they said. 

The traffic monitoring group NetBlocks reported  “live metrics show that Twitter has been restricted on multiple providers in Russia.”

On Saturday, Meta announced that it, too, would bar Russian state media from running ads and monetizing on Meta-owned platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. 

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, NetBlocks reported isolated and sporadic internet outages in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, but overall, Russian cyber attacks on Ukraine have been far less severe than many feared.

Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Wall Street Journal on Friday that "In the briefings and the conversations I've had with American intelligence and military leadership and cyber experts, I think we've been surprised that Russia has not gone and ramped up to some of their better tools.”

But that doesn’t mean the Russians aren’t trying to use available tools in the conflict. Observers online said Russian soldiers were using microtasking tools like Premise to geolocate Ukrainian assets for targeting—essentially paying users to locate things like ​ports, medical facilities, bridges, and explosion craters.

Premise responded by calling the claims “unequivocally false,” but said they were suspending operations in Ukraine out of an abundance of caution. 

Meanwhile multiple reports indicate that some Russian-state websites were also inaccessible after a DDOS attack.