Pity (small violin) the Silicon Valley CEOs who are receiving contradictory orders from governments around the world.
From Washington: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) fired off a letter to leaders of Alphabet, Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter warning them that “information warfare constitutes an integral part of Russian military doctrine.” The senator told them not to allow their platforms to be used maliciously to advance Russian war aims in Ukraine.
“We can expect to see an escalation in Russia’s use of both overt and covert means to sow confusion about the conflict and promote disinformation narratives that can weaken the global response to these illegal acts,” Sen. Warner told them.
From Moscow: The Russian government is now demanding that social media platforms comply with a Russian law requiring social media companies to set up legal entities in that country. This, of course, would expose local employees to legal harassment and make heavy-handed censorship and propagandizing all the easier. Russian propaganda is already popping up in U.S.-based social media.
From Kyiv: The Ukrainians have reason to value the presence of these companies. TikTok has been very useful to the Ukrainian government in showing stalled Russian columns, acts of citizen defiance and disillusioned Russian prisoners. At the same time, it can be used to trick adversaries with manipulated images and false intelligence. Ukraine’s vice prime minister, however, asked Apple, Google, Netflix and Meta to restrict access to their services inside Russia.
Is that the right call from a Ukrainian perspective? Russia has yet to build a comprehensive way to block outside information as strong as the Great Firewall of China. With Russia’s official media controlled by Moscow, Facebook and other platforms are still valued sources of legitimate information inside Russia. This may be important in cultivating protestors against Vladimir Putin and his regime.
On the other hand, continued participation by these companies inside Russia runs the risk of being transformed into a mouthpiece for a dictator. Not an easy call.
At home, war and the spread of the surveillance state abroad will reshape our social media, its practices and its openness. It will invite our own government to be more vigilant about content moderation in ways that could impact privacy and speech at home. And, of course, as information warfare accelerates, U.S. agencies will see a need to pry more – not less – into our data, lest Fifth Columnists pollute our feeds.
The equities involved for Big Social are huge and in conflict. One hopes at least that Silicon Valley will stay true to its roots and stand for democracy and free speech instead of dollar signs and market reach.
Whatever else we can say, war in Europe threatens to distort our social media platforms and challenge our norms. This is a time for civil libertarians to be wide awake.