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Feb. 28, 2022, 3:25 p.m.

Russia’s fighting a media war, too, with platforms, regulators, and business partners

From ad monetization to cable carriage, there’s a battle going on over the ways Russia gets its messaging out.

Most of the international community is treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a gross violation of its sovereignty and international law. (Even the famously neutral Swiss are on board.) But the response being summoned isn’t just about economic sanctions or sending weapons — it’s also happening at the level of media.

There are two major fronts being engaged: the mostly U.S.-owned digital platforms through which Russians and Ukrainians communicate with each other and with the world, and the propaganda machinery Russia has managed to build inside Western countries. The pace of change has been dizzying, but here are a few of the most significant.

The platforms want to stop Russian propaganda outlets from making money.

Propaganda outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today) aren’t meant to be moneymakers, but the advertising infrastructure that allows them to generate revenue is nonetheless pushing back. Here’s Facebook:

Facebook says it has restricted Russian state media’s ability to earn money on the social media platform as Moscow’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine reached the streets of Kyiv.

“We are now prohibiting Russian state media from running ads or monetising on our platform anywhere in the world,” Nathaniel Gleicher, the social media giant’s security policy head, said on Twitter on Friday.

Here’s Google:

Google barred on Saturday Russia’s state-owned media outlet RT and other channels from receiving money for ads on their websites, apps and YouTube videos, similar to a move by Facebook after the invasion of Ukraine.

Citing “extraordinary circumstances,” Google’s YouTube unit said it was “pausing a number of channels’ ability to monetize on YouTube.” These included several Russian channels affiliated with recent sanctions, such as those by the European Union. Ad placement is largely controlled by YouTube.

Google added later that it was also barring Russian state-funded media outlets from using its ad technology to generate revenue on their own websites and apps. In addition, the Russian media will not be able to buy ads through Google Tools or place ads on Google services such as search and Gmail, spokesman Michael Aciman said.

Here’s Twitter:

Twitter has temporarily paused ads in Ukraine and Russia, one of several steps the company is taking to highlight safety information and minimize “risks associated with the conflict in Ukraine.”

“We’re temporarily pausing advertisements in Ukraine and Russia to ensure critical public safety information is elevated and ads don’t detract from it,” the company wrote in an update that was also shared in Ukrainian. Twitter also said it’s temporarily halting the recommendations feature that surfaces tweets from accounts users’ don’t follow in their home timelines in order to “reduce the spread of abusive content.”

Russia wants to block independent sources of information, and the platforms want to restrain Russia’s reach.

Of course, eyeballs are more important than dollars in a propaganda war. Platforms can block disinformation campaigns:

Facebook and Instagram have taken down a disinformation network targeting people in Ukraine, as their owner announced it was blocking access to Kremlin-backed media organisations in the country.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta said it had uncovered a “relatively small” network of about 40 accounts, pages and groups on the two social media platforms.

The network ran websites posing as independent news entities and created fake personas across social media including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram as well as Odnoklassniki and VK in Russia, Meta added.

But Russia can also block access to the platforms when they dare to fact-check:

The Russian government has partially blocked access to Facebook in the country after it claims the social network “restricted” the accounts of four Russian media outlets.

In a statement on Friday, Russia’s tech and communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, said Facebook was violating “the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens,” and that it had recorded 23 cases of “censorship” by the social network since October 2020.

“On February 24, Roskomnadzor sent requests to the administration of Meta Platforms, Inc. [to] remove the restrictions imposed by the social network Facebook on Russian media and explain the reason for their introduction,” the Russian regulator said, adding that Meta “ignored” its requests…Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, confirmed that the company declined to comply with the government’s requests to “stop fact-checking and labelling of content posted on Facebook by four Russian state-owned media organizations.”

Russia can block access to independent media:

The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has played through a filter of propaganda here in Moscow, where the authorities appear concerned that ordinary Russians will be disgusted by scenes of missiles striking Kyiv and have sought to cut off the public from that uncomfortable truth.

To do so, the Russian government has taken extraordinary steps by throttling Facebook and threatening to shut independent media outlets such as TV Rain and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which published an edition in Russian and Ukrainian this week with the banner headline “Russia is bombing Ukraine”.

The media have been told to use only official government sources for their reports and not to use certain words to describe the operation. According to the Latvian-based Russian news website Meduza, the words are: “Attack, invasion, war.”

But journalists have their own ways to fight back:

Elena Chernenko, a journalist for the Moscow daily Kommersant, woke up Friday to find out that access to top government officials she’s had for over a decade had suddenly been revoked. Her crime? Publishing an open letter not criticizing the government but voicing her opposition to war. Over 280 other journalists signed Chernenko’s letter, including some who are employed directly by the Kremlin at state-run news agencies…

In a country where journalists are regularly arrested and detained for little or no reason, publicly signing a letter opposing the government’s action is a brave thing to do, especially for those who have already been detained for their journalism.

One of those is Ilya Azar, a correspondent for Novaya Gazeta who has covered past conflicts in Ukraine. While he has been detained twice for his political activities, he didn’t think twice about signing the letter.

“We don’t have many instruments to influence the authorities in Russia nowadays, so we must use every opportunity,” Azar told VICE World News. “There wasn’t any doubt for me to sign this letter. This is very, very far from the required level of pressure on Putin to stop this fucking war, but at least this is something.”

Even those who probably should have known better pre-invasion can take a stand:

Opposition to coverage of Russia’s Ukraine invasion at Kremlin-funded RT has seen reporters quit and the website hacked, as MPs called on Ofcom to ban the outlet…

On Thursday, two RT journalists Jonny Tickle and Shadia Edwards-Dashti left their jobs at the broadcaster, though only the former made clear he was resigning in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Tickle said on Twitter “recent events” forced him to resign from RT “with immediate effect”.

Since then, several more journalists have resigned from the service including presenter Danny Armstrong, producer Ross Field and French host Frédéric Taddeï, who said he had quit the show he presented out of “loyalty to France”.

Cable companies face pressure to cut off RT.

In Canada:

Canada’s largest television providers are removing Russia Today from their services after one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ministers said he opposed the state-owned Russian broadcaster’s presence on the nation’s airwaves.

Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. said late Sunday that RT will no longer be available to their customers. The moves came one day after Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said the government would look at “all options” for eliminating the Kremlin-controlled channel from the Canadian broadcasting system, amid widespread fury over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In Australia:

The Kremlin-backed RT channel, which has reported that Russian troops are trying to liberate Ukraine, has been suspended by Foxtel in Australia.

“In view of concern about the situation in Ukraine, the Russia Today channel is currently unavailable on Foxtel and Flash,” a spokesperson for the Foxtel Group said.

Foxtel made the decision on Saturday evening after monitoring the broadcast and stopped streaming RT at 5.45 pm on Foxtel and Flash. The satellite transmission came off the air at 6.40pm.

(It has always been strange, but after the past week, doesn’t it feel absolutely bizarre that so many American cable systems and even radio stations have been happy to take the Kremlin’s money to push out its propaganda? And newspapers’ hands aren’t clean either; to name just one, The Washington Post has for decades run entire print sections of Kremlin- and China-supplied messaging as “paid supplements.” Between 2016 and 2020, China spent more than $12 million on advertorial in major U.S. newspapers, including the Post, the L.A. Times, The Wall Street Journal, and even the Des Moines Register. And I haven’t even mentioned the Saudis.)

Politicians and regulators both apply and feel that same pressure.

In the U.K.:

Labour has called for a ban on the Russian state-backed broadcaster RT, accusing the channel of pumping out pro-Vladimir Putin “propaganda”.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, told MPs that the Russian president’s “campaign of misinformation should be tackled”, starting with moves to prevent RT from “broadcasting its propaganda around the world”.

The English-language channel is regulated by Ofcom, which said on Monday it would prioritise any complaints about any broadcast coverage of Ukraine “given the seriousness of the crisis”.

“All licensees must observe Ofcom’s rules, including due accuracy and due impartiality,” an Ofcom spokesperson said. “If broadcasters break those rules, we will not hesitate to step in.”

In Europe:

The European Union will ban Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday.

Saying that the EU will ban “Kremlin’s media machine,” von der Leyen added that “state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries, will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union.”

“We are developing tools to ban the toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe,” von der Leyen said.

Here in the U.S.:

The Federal Communications Commission is on the hunt for companies it oversees that may have ownership ties to Russia, in a prelude to possible clampdowns following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The internal assessment, which has not been previously reported or publicly announced, was launched this week by FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, according to a person familiar with the matter. It follows mounting scrutiny of Russian-backed programming on US airwaves, social media and other channels as the war in Ukraine unfolds.

Europe refuses to give Russia the cover of cultural exchange.

Throughout the Cold War, cultural diplomacyart exhibitions and concerts, people-to-people exchanges, the Peace Corps, and so on — were used by both sides to reduce tensions and to promote its view of the world. It may seem silly, but decisions like Eurovision booting Russia from its upcoming song contest is a meaningful attempt to block its use of that tool:

“The decision reflects concern that, in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute,” the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said in a statement. The decision to punish Russia culturally for invading Ukraine comes a day after the same group had said Moscow would be allowed to send an act to appear at the next Eurovision, scheduled to be held in Turin, Italy, in May.

Ukraine’s public broadcasting company had asked for Russia to be suspended from the popular contest, which is watched by almost 200 million people each year. But the EBU, which has organized the contest since 1956, had insisted Eurovision was “a non-political cultural event”…

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Friday urged sporting federations around the world to pull events from Russia and Belarus, a Moscow ally that allowed Russian forces to use its territory to attack Ukraine…The Russian Grand Prix has also been canceled by Formula One, while the Champions League final is set to be moved from St. Petersburg. In New York City, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, a friend and ally to President Vladimir Putin, was barred from leading performances of the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

Photo of a pro-Ukraine protest in Brussels Feb. 27, 2022 by Bartosz Brzezinski used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 28, 2022, 3:25 p.m.
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