The Ukrainian crisis – Twitter, YouTube and Facebook react and Russian sites are attacked
The horrifying situation in Ukraine has been going on for three days now, with photos and videos spreading around the world in seconds thanks to the widespread use of social media in the country.
But as the West grapples with the possibilities of greater sanctions to make war untenable for Putin and Russia, the response from (and in some cases “to”) big tech has had to be more nimble. Here’s how the tech world has reacted to the crisis so far.
SWIFT sanctions and expulsion
Over the past few hours, the EU and the US agreed to remove some Russian banks from the SWIFT secure messaging network, which is primarily known for its use in financial systems. SWIFT connects more than 11,000 financial institutions, including the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, which could have a significant effect on the Russian economy. You can read the joint statement from US and European allies here.
Perhaps more importantly, the statement also mentions “restrictive measures that will prevent the Russian Central Bank from deploying its international reserves in ways that undermine the impact of our sanctions.” This, as explained in this twitter thread by Professor Rob Person, could be devastating for the Russian economy in the long run.
More immediately, however, the SWIFT change had an instant ripple effect on the ground for ordinary Russians, with the Central Bank of Russia announcing that customers of the banks concerned will no longer be able to use the Apple Pay or Google Pay services. Although, as The edge points out that none of these services are as popular in Russia as they are in the West: from 202029% of Russians have used Google Pay and only 20% have used Apple Pay.
In addition to this, the United States imposes export restrictions to prevent Russia from accessing tech products from abroad. US suppliers are looking to ship the tastes of microelectronics, telecommunications items, sensors, navigational equipment and more to Russia will now need to obtain a license. License applications will operate under a “denial policy”, meaning that it is expected that any challenge will be denied unless there are exceptional circumstances.
“Between our actions and those of our allies and partners, we estimate we will cut more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports,” President Joe Biden said during a speech explaining the new sanctions.
Notably, these will not affect the importation of smartphones (as long as they are not intended for government employees or public companies), and there have been calls for tech companies to boycott Russia in protest. In a letter posted on Twitter, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov called on Apple CEO Tim Cook to stop selling his company’s products and shut down the App Store in Russia.
I contacted @tim_cook, CEO of Apple, to block the Apple Store for citizens of the Russian Federation and to support the US government’s sanctions package! If you agree to have the president-killer, then you will have to settle for the only available site Russia 24. pic.twitter.com/b5dm78g2vSFebruary 25, 2022
“The whole world repulses the aggressor by the imposition of sanctions – the enemy must suffer heavy losses… [I]In 2022, modern technology is perhaps the best answer to tanks, multiple rocket launchers and missiles,” he wrote.
“We are sure that such actions will motivate Russia’s youth and working population to proactively stop shameful military aggression.”
Fedorov confirmed in a series of follow-up tweets that he sent similar letters to Google, Netflix, YouTube and Meta.
Speaking of YouTube and Meta, social media companies are keenly aware that their platforms can be used for both misinformation and misinformation. As such, a few companies have made strong claims about their crackdown on propagandists trying to use such channels to pressure the Kremlin into turning the war around.
Twitter was the first to come out of the blocks, announcing that it had suspended ads in Ukraine and Russia “to make sure critical public safety information is high and ads don’t take it away.” It also discontinues the recommendations feature to try to “reduce the spread of abusive content” and monitors high profile accounts of journalists, activists and government officials to prevent hacking attempts.
YouTube explained that the “extraordinary circumstances” mean he has temporarily banned a handful of Russian channels – including Russia Today (RT) – to earn advertising revenue. The algorithm has also been changed to ensure that videos from these content creators will also appear less frequently in user recommendations.
After Russian regulator Roskomnadzor pledged to restrict access to Facebook in response to the company’s refusal to end its fact-checking of Russian state media, the Meta-owned company also retaliated. The social network responded in kind, prevent Russian state media from running advertisements or monetize their content.
Although all these steps are necessary, it will not solve the whole problem of propaganda on any of the platforms mentioned. Much has been written about the so-called Russian troll farms, and suffice it to say that it is much easier to block official state media than disguised paid activists with their largely organic reach. But it’s a start, at least.
Aid to Ukrainians: Elon Musk and Starlink
While there is a number of charities that accept donations for Ukraine in cash or cryptocurrency, tech companies are also looking at how they can help people in the country who see their infrastructure directly under attack. A number of carriers have waived fees for those communicating in Ukraine, but Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has also signaled support with something more ambitious: using his Starlink internet satellites.
When Federov asked the big tech players for help, he messaged Musk directly. “@elonmusk, while you’re trying to colonize Mars – Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine!”, he tweeted. “As your rockets land successfully from space, Russian rockets are attacking Ukrainian civilians! We ask that you provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and invite sane Russians to stand up.
“Starlink service is now active in Ukraine”, Musk responded. “More terminals along the way.”
Assuming a decent supply, that’s a big deal: it means Russian forces can’t block Ukrainians’ internet access without attacking data centers beyond its borders.
Cyberwar: Russian government sites attacked
Cyberattacks are an important part of modern warfare, and that is indeed how the invasion of Russia began: with targeted malware and DDOS cyberattacks on Ukrainian ministries. Continuous blackouts are reported in the country and the Ukrainian government said these are “unambiguously linked” to Moscow.
But the problem with cyberattacks is that they work both ways and can come from anywhere in the world. And global outrage at Russia’s invasion has bought Ukraine unexpected allies. On Saturday, a number of official Russian government sites were down, and Twitter accounts claiming to represent hacking collective Anonymous would later take credit for it.