A man rides his bicycle on March 4, 2022 in front of residential buildings damaged in shelling in the city of Chernihiv, Ukraine – Copyright AFP Jung Yeon-je
Joshua Melvin with Julie Jammot in San Francisco
Russia’s blocking of Facebook is a symptom of its broader effort to cut itself off from sources of information that could imperil its internationally condemned invasion of Ukraine, experts say.
The often-criticized social network is part of a web of information sources that can challenge the Kremlin’s preferred perspective that its assault on Ukraine is righteous and necessary.
Blocking of Facebook and restricting of Twitter on Friday came the same day Moscow backed the imposition of jail terms on media publishing “false information” about the military.
Russia’s motivation “is to suppress political challenges at a very fraught moment for (Vladimir) Putin, and the regime, when it comes to those asking very tough questions about why Russia is continuing to prosecute this war,” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russia thus joins the very small club of countries barring the largest social network in the world, along with China and North Korea.
Moscow was expected to quickly overpower its neighbor but the campaign has already shown signs that it could go longer and could lead to the unleashing of its full military ferocity.
“It’s a censorship tool of last resort,” Feldstein added. “They are pulling the plug on a platform rather than try to block pages or use all sorts of other mechanisms that they traditionally do.”
Earlier this week independent monitoring group OVD-Info said that more than 7,000 people in Russia had been detained at demonstrations over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Web monitoring group NetBlocks said Russia’s moves against the social media giants come amid a backdrop of protests “which are coordinated and mobilized through social media and messaging applications.”
The war is meanwhile taking place during a period of unprecedented crackdown on the Russian opposition, with has included protest leaders being assassinated, jailed or forced out of the country.
– ‘No access to truth’ –
Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last week, Russian authorities have stepped up pressure against independent media even though press freedoms in the country were already rapidly waning.
In this context, Facebook plays a key information distribution role in Russia, even as it endures withering criticism in the West over matters ranging from political division to teenagers’ mental health.
Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at rights group Access Now, said social media has been a place where independent, critical voices have been talking about the invasion.
“Facebook is one of the key platforms in Russia,” she said, adding that its loss is “a devastating blow to access to independent information and for resistance to the war.”
Russia has been hit with unprecedented sanctions from the West over the invasion, but also rejections both symbolic and significant from sources ranging from sporting organizations to US tech companies.
Facebook’s parent Meta and Twitter however have engaged on the very sensitive issue of information by blocking the spread of Russian state-linked news media.
Russia’s media regulator took aim at both, with Roskomnadzor accusing Facebook of discrimination toward state media.
Big US tech firms like Apple and Microsoft have announced halting the sale of their products in Russia, while other companies have made public their “pauses” of certain business activities or ties.
On Friday US internet service provider Cogent Communications said it had “terminated its contracts with customers billing out of Russia.”
The Washington Post reported Cogent has “several dozen customers in Russia, with many of them, such as state-owned telecommunications giant Rostelecom, being close to the government.”
It’s exactly the kind of measure Ukrainian officials have been campaigning heavily for as they ask Russia be cut off from everything from Netflix to Instagram.
Yet experts like Krapiva worry about what that would mean for dissenting or critical voices inside Russia.
“There’s a risk of people having no access to truth,” she said.
“Some Ukrainians have been calling for disconnecting Russia from the internet, but that’s counterproductive to disconnect civil society in Russia who are trying to fight.”
Parler Announces That it’s Terminated its Acquisition Deal with Kanye West
Kanye West will not follow in Elon Musk’s footsteps and buy his own social media platform, with Parler confirming today that it has ended negotiations with West on a possible sale of the app.
In response to numerous media inquiries, Parlement Technologies would like to confirm that the company has mutually agreed with Ye to terminate the intent of sale of Parler. This decision was made in the interest of both parties in mid-November.
— Parler (@parler_app) December 1, 2022
The reasoning behind the decision is not clear, but West has continued to share his controversial opinions in various media opportunities of late, which has resulted in him losing a range of sponsor and partnership deals, and has decimated his net worth.
Axios has reported that West’s financial situation, as a result of these impacts, has played at least some role in the dissolution of the Parler deal.
West originally announced his intention to acquire Parler back in October, saying at the time that he needed to buy his own platform in order to share his unfiltered opinions with the world.
“People had talked about it and mentioned this idea for years, but enough was enough.”
In the weeks leading up to that announcement, West had been suspended from both Instagram and Twitter after deliberately pushing his limits on both by sharing offensive, anti-Semitic remarks. That then led West to Parler, and with Elon Musk moving to take over at Twitter, West saw an opportunity to also play a part in what he saw as a broader shift towards allowing more free and open speech.
But now, West is moving on – though he will continue with his 2024 Presidential run, apparently.
West has also seemingly pinned his hopes on Musk for a future reformation of social media moderation rules.
I love the first amendment! Long live Ye! I pray to Jesus that Elon is for real…
— ye (@kanyewest) December 1, 2022
At least, I think that’s what this means.
The announcement leaves Parler in a less than certain predicament, as it continues its efforts to develop a more sustainable business model in order to maintain operation as a free speech platform.
In the wake of the Capitol Riots, Parler was almost killed off entirely when both Apple and Google removed the app from their respective stores due its lax moderation policies, which they said had allowed too many posts that encouraged violence and crime. Amazon then also refused to host Parler on its web-hosting service due to repeated violations of its rules.
Parler was eventually able to save itself by rolling out additional moderation rules, in alignment with the requirements of each platform, which subsequently caused a level of angst among its core user base. Parler has since been found to be censoring certain posts, and removing certain users, which has prompted further criticism of the app, and with Elon taking over at Twitter, and promising a more open approach to what can be shared via tweet, it seems like Parler’s days could indeed be numbered, especially if Musk is able to implement a significant change in Twitter’s approach.
Which will also be challenging. Just as Parler had to change its moderation approach in line with app store policies, Twitter will also have to maintain its processes on the same, which could impede Musk’s push to enable more free and open speech in the app.
Elon’s looking to challenge this, but again, there will always be a level of moderation required, which will likely always exceed what free speech advocates would prefer, given evolving rules in Europe and other regions.
And for Kanye, it seems like his ambitions for owning his own social platform are now shelved, at least for the time being.