Internet fragments as Russian invasion pushes social media platforms to choose sides
Story on the Washington Examiner website here: Internet fragments as Russian invasion pushes platforms to choose sides
The West's effort to curb pro-Russian websites and media outlets in reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine could lead to an increasingly fragmented internet, cyberwarfare experts say.
Major social media companies, including YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter, have moved to reduce Russian propaganda and disinformation on their platforms by banning or restricting content from Russian state media outlets such as RT, Sputnik, and others.
But Russia and other countries sympathetic to its narrative can curtail those platforms and allow others to have a larger role within their borders. The resulting trend, experts say, is people seeing different content online depending on where they are and the political ideology of their respective countries.
“There’s a distinct danger that we’ll have a much less unified internet than we did before,” said Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel for the National Security Agency and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“As platforms make more determinations of what content to allow or block, they become subjective and that leads to fragmentation naturally — more pro-left platforms and pro-right ones, which creates more homogeneous echo chambers that we’ll have to battle against,” Gerstall added.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is one of the first major full-scale military invasions of another country in the age of social media, where online platforms are used by billions — and where a separate war is waged online by governments trying to shape alternative narratives.
For example, two anti-Ukraine disinformation operations that were taken down by Facebook last week were tied to Ukraine Today, a Russian propaganda news outfit created to make Ukraine look like a failed state by using fake Facebook profiles. Russian state media last week also falsely reported a Ukrainian civilian genocide that officials believe was a way to justify the Russian invasion.
Some experts insist that actions taken to suppress Russian disinformation and help Ukraine are necessary, but they acknowledge that such judgments could create long-term ramifications.
“We’re in a moment of emergency, but we’re creating precedents that other countries and governments will look back at and ask for the same action or treatment in regards to censorship,” said Emerson Brooking, a scholar of digital platforms and disinformation at the Atlantic Council, a centrist think tank.
“This is an emergency, but it's always an emergency for the government or group asking for help dealing with disinformation and the violence it creates,” said Brooking.
The notion of one free internet around the globe, which most people in Western democratic countries have enjoyed for the past few decades, is quickly being eroded by conflicts like the one occurring in Ukraine.
“It’s an impossible trade-off for tech platforms who want to provide tools for local activists to use but also stand up to harsh governments like Russia,” said Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public policy director.
“We have to recognize the nuance within this unprecedented dynamic and take the time to make proper decisions without creating unintended consequences,” Harbath said.
It is not clear what direction the internet and free speech debates will take in the coming months, but online divisions caused by the crisis in Ukraine are becoming more apparent.
“There are periods where the world changes drastically all at once, and we’re in the middle of one of those changes right now in regards to tech policy,” said Brooking. “We don’t know where things will land, but we can just try and make sense of it during a time of confusion and crisis.”