March 17, 2022

Social Media Still Bows to Putin

Despite his decimation of Ukraine, the Russian tyrant still enjoys a Twitter account.

Keeping a tight grip on the truth and preventing it from going public has been a crucial part of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s also pivotal to his hold over the Russian people. Because of this, Putin is keen on bringing global social media giants to heel, keen on keeping them from distributing information he doesn’t want seen. Right now, this battle is touch and go.

Facebook got the attention of Russian regulators a couple weeks ago for fact-checking and labeling content on its platform posted by state-run and state-supported media outlets. This was met with disapproval by Russian officials, who then lost their minds when Facebook banned these outlets from its EU and UK servers. The Russian government then banned Facebook from the country. Later the same day, Twitter was likewise banned in Russia.

The Russian government, though, hasn’t stopped at social media. It’s now a crime to spread disinformation about the war in Ukraine — disinformation being anything short of full-throated support of the Russian invasion. Perpetrators of such crimes as truth-telling can get up to 15 years in prison. Soon thereafter, the BBC, CNN, and Bloomberg have shuttered their operations inside Russia until they decide their next move.

Some are now calling for the social media giants to accede to Russia’s demands for the moment, which would allow the Russian people to communicate and coordinate protests. This view holds that even with Russian state-controlled content on these platforms, people would still benefit from access to other information that is accurate and authentic.

While it sounds like a net positive, this is a debatable position. Yes, social media can topple a government, but the Russian government may be a couple of steps ahead in this department.

How so? Vladimir Putin’s social media presence remains as robust as ever. He banned Twitter from his country, but he still has his own Twitter account. In addition, many Kremlin officials were able to use Twitter, along with Facebook and Instagram, to promote their war efforts in the days leading up to and immediately following the invasion. Thus, the Russian government continues to use the platform to push wartime propaganda. Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for life, but the Butcher of Ukraine is still live and in color with 1.7 million followers. Let that sink in for a moment.

Now consider that Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, still has his Twitter account, even after having called for Israel’s destruction on the platform. The bloodthirsty Taliban, too, are also tweeting away. But Missouri Republican Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler was suspended from Twitter for voicing her opinion that women’s sports are for women, not men pretending to be women.

Social media has long been heralded as a transformational presence for its ability to democratize the flow of information and eliminate the monopoly long enjoyed by the state. It’s clear, though, that social media isn’t yet all-powerful and that tyrants like Vladimir Putin still have the upper hand.

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