Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are uniquely powerful in their reach and global reach, but they are ultimately companies whose business can be harmed by taking a position that is too strong.
Since Moscow attacked neighboring Ukraine at the weekend, the embattled country has asked companies like Apple, Google and Netflix to ban Russia, while Facebook has said its services are restricted for its refusal to bow to the Kremlin’s demands.
Twitter, which last year faced fines and a slowdown in service due to government orders requiring it to remove content from the platform, reported Saturday that its network is “restricted to some people in Russia”.
“Western companies have provided an online space for Russians to learn about the atrocities committed by their government in Ukraine,” Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, said on Twitter.
“The Kremlin is moving aggressively to hide the truth,” he added.
For now, some companies have taken wise steps. For example, Facebook’s parent company Meta and YouTube have announced restrictions on Russian state-owned media to be able to monetize their content on both platforms.
“We are temporarily suspending the monetization ability of a number of channels on YouTube, including several recently sanctioned affiliate channels,” the company said in a statement.
“In response to a request from the government, we have restricted access to RT and a certain number of other channels in Ukraine,” he added, referring to the Russian state TV channel.
The Ukrainian government, urging its residents to stand up to Russian forces, has asked for help from everywhere, including from Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“I ask you (…) to stop providing Apple services and products to the Russian Federation” and also “Block access to the Apple Store!” Ukraine’s Digital Minister Mikhailo Fedorov wrote in a letter published on Friday.
The day before, Cook wrote on Twitter that he was “deeply concerned about the situation in Ukraine” and that the company would support local humanitarian efforts.
Big tech companies have struggled to deal with authoritarian governments, including in Russia, where Google and Apple agreed last year to remove an opposition app at the behest of authorities, sparking an outcry.
As the crisis in Ukraine escalated, these major corporations were accused of not doing everything they could to suppress misinformation about the invasion.
US Senator Mark Warner wrote to Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, on Friday.
Warner, who has also sent messages to Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter, accused YouTube of continuing to “monetize the content of high-profile influencers … publicly associated with Russian influence campaigns.”
Tech companies have long portrayed themselves as champions of free speech and democratic values, but they have been criticized for making billions of dollars in advertising revenue on platforms that can have detrimental effects on users.
The invasion of Ukraine comes at a time when dominant social media platforms such as Facebook have suffered historic losses amid fears of slowing growth and pressure on their advertising business.
But experts are urging them to take tough stances, especially in serious cases like Ukraine.
As Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, wrote on Twitter Friday: “It is appropriate for American companies to choose sides in geopolitical conflicts, and this should be an easy decision.”
“Don’t let the worst of humanity use your tools,” Brian Fishman, another former employee of the company, wrote on the social network.