How Western tech giants failed their promise to Ukrainians

Meta plans to launch a ChatGPT competitor
Meta plans to launch a ChatGPT competitor

In the days that followed Feb. 24, 2022, it seemed like every major company and institution in the West rushed to proclaim their support for the Ukrainian resistance against Russian imperialism.

The U.S.-based “Big Tech” companies—a group that includes Facebook parent company Meta, Google, Apple, and Amazon—were particularly vocal. It’s not surprising why: These companies, among the largest in the world by market cap, wield influence perhaps more comparable to a nation-state than your average Fortune 500 company.

At a time when these companies were facing enormous anti-monopoly scrutiny at home, glowing articles on how “‘Big Tech’ moves to defy Kremlin” were a perfect save-face. Facebook and Google’s YouTube both took high-profile steps to remove some of the loudest Russian propagandists on their platforms. On Apple’s part, the company announced it stood “with all people who are suffering as a result of the violence” and announced a halt to product sales. In similar fashion, Amazon would announce a halt to shipping and Prime Video access in Russia.

Much has been written about how Western governments, quick to affirm their solidarity with Ukraine during the Battle of Kyiv, have gradually reneged on their promises to support the Ukrainian resistance. There’s been outcry over the weaknesses of Western sanctions, which haven’t prevented technologies like microchips built in the United States and other allied nations from falling into the arms of the Russian military. Given the unparalleled political power and social influence the Big Tech companies have worldwide, scrutiny of the tech giants’ failure to support the Ukrainian nation is equally warranted.

While Facebook got positive press for blocking RT and Sputnik in the EU in late February 2022, it quickly became clear that Meta’s anti-Kremlin misinformation campaign was skin-deep. In mid-March 2022, U.S. lawmakers warned that Meta was giving a pass to pro-Russian propaganda from sources outside Moscow, including Chinese-affiliated state media. Meta’s negligence has only become more apparent in the two years that followed. While the company boasted of disabling a Russian online propaganda network targeting European users, the company’s platforms have evidently continued to be a tool for Kremlin allies.

In 2023, journalists documented how Kremlin-aligned, anti-Ukraine political movements were able to spread their messages ahead of elections in Moldova and Slovakia. And when Meta finally launched Threads, its alternative to Twitter—whose incarnation under Elon Musk is itself notorious for being a cesspool of Russian propaganda—the platform was found to take a lax approach to labeling Russian propaganda accounts.

In the days following the invasion, the Brookings Institution, a U.S.-based think tank, sounded the alarm that Russian misinformation was performing unusually well on Google’s search engine. While the company has promised to root out Russian misinformation, these promises have evidently amounted to little. In line with Big Tech companies’ historic hands-off approach to disinformation in non-English languages, Spanish-language pro-Kremlin propaganda, including an RT-affiliated channel, flourished on Google’s YouTube. Last fall, it was reported that a popular service on Google’s Android continued to provide Russian audiences with disinformation about the war, including claims that Ukraine was responsible for the deaths of 52 Kharkiv residents.

Big Tech’s profiteering off Russian misinformation extends well beyond Meta and Google. While Amazon CEO Andy Jassy was quick to pledge support for the Ukrainian people in March 2022, an editorial in the Columbia Journalism Report noted that Amazon’s popular Twitch streaming service has been a conduit for Russian misinformation. In November 2023, Apple received backlash for inexplicably removing popular Russian opposition podcast Meduza from its platforms, only to be reinstated days later following public criticism.

As analysts reckon with the consequences of Western governments’ insufficient support for the Ukrainian war effort, it’s also important to recognize damage caused by the Western private sector. After all, just as Western governments’ insufficient military aid deserves scrutiny as the Ukrainian nation fights an existential battle, so do international platforms that have failed to stem the tide of Russian misinformation.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine