Twitter to flag all content linking to Russian state media

1 Mar 2022

Image: © Ascannio/Stock.adobe.com

Tweets with URLs to Russian state media sites such as RT and Sputnik will now come with labels, as tech continues to take a stand on Russia.

Twitter has said it is adding labels to all tweets that link to Russian state-affiliated media sites and taking steps to curb their reach to prevent the spread of misinformation surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a tweet yesterday (28 February), Twitter head of site integrity Yoel Roth said that more than 45,000 tweets a day with URLs linking to Russian state-affiliated media organisations such as RT and Sputnik have been circulating on Twitter since the invasion of Ukraine began.

Future Human

“As people look for credible information on Twitter regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we understand and take our role seriously. Our product should make it easy to understand who’s behind the content you see, and what their motivations and intentions are,” he tweeted.

Twitter has until now labelled and de-amplified the accounts of global state media outlets, such as those from Russia, but labelling individual tweets that share content from them is a first.

“We’ve learned that labelling tweets is another way we can add helpful context to conversations around some of the most critical issues,” Roth added.

While Russian websites such as RT and Sputnik will be affected by this new move, other state-financed media organisations such as the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US are not defined by Twitter as state-affiliated media because of their editorial independence.

Adam Levin, a consumer advocate and podcaster who discusses technology, questioned the effectiveness of the move based on whether Twitter will be able to identify all state-affiliated media content.

“While this seems like a welcome development, I’m sceptical that they’ll be able to mark all tweets linked to Russian state-backed media, which may lull users into a false sense of security,” he tweeted.

Tech steps up efforts

The move comes amid a spate of sweeping measures from major tech companies in response to the conflict in Ukraine.

After an appeal from the Ukrainian government, Google banned the RT news app from its Play store in Ukraine to help curb the spread of misinformation around the invasion. New users will not be able to download the app, while those who already have it will not receive any updates.

Alphabet-owned YouTube said over the weekend that it is pausing several Russian channels’ ability to monetise and “significantly limiting” recommendations to these channels. It added today that it is blocking channels connected to RT and Sputnik across Europe effective immediately.

A similar move to block monetisation was introduced by Meta on its Facebook platform. Meta’s new head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, tweeted over the weekend that it will continue independently fact-checking and labelling Russian state media despite being ordered by the Russian government not to do so.

He added yesterday that the company will be “restricting access to RT and Sputnik across the EU”.

Other companies such as TikTok, Microsoft and Netflix have been taking similar stands.

A TikTok spokesperson told NPR that it is blocking RT and Sputnik on its platform for users in the EU – removing access to all their content. Microsoft also said yesterday that it will drop the RT news app from its Windows app store, not display RT or Sputnik content on its Start news feed, and de-prioritise the sites on its search engine Bing.

Meanwhile, Netflix said it will not comply with a new Russian rule to stream 20 state-backed channels on its platform. Roku, another streaming service, is reportedly removing RT from the Roku channel store in Europe. In Ireland, TV provider Eir has already blocked the RT television channel from its service.

This concerted effort comes after the EU announced a ban on RT, Sputnik and their subsidiaries so that they “will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war”, according to a tweet by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

TechCrunch reports the ban is expected to cover not just traditional broadcast channels but online platforms and apps as well.

While the moves are unprecedented, some in the region believe it is not enough. Ukrainian vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted yesterday that Google was not doing enough on YouTube to de-platform Russian state media “in the strongest possible terms”.

The leaders of Ukraine’s neighbours Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have also criticised Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for not doing enough to crack down on misinformation surrounding the invasion.

In a joint letter to the CEOs of the four companies, the leaders called on them to suspend accounts of individuals and institutions that deny or glorify the Russian invasion of Ukraine and spread misinformation, among other recommendations.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com