Geopolitics and disinformation are key themes for tech and media companies caught in the crossfire when tensions mount between Russia and the West.
They can be used as a weapon in the hands of those who want to spread propaganda and disinformation, and Russian tech companies are already being punished for aiding the spread of disinformation by being shut out of key markets.
Russian tech and media companies are being iced out
On 27 February, 2022, the EU banned two Russian media companies, Russia Today and Sputnik, to halt the spread of disinformation. EU laws aiming to curtail the spread of disinformation could target Russian tech companies seen to be spreading fake news. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, claimed that banning RT and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries, would mean that they would be unable to spread ‘toxic and harmful disinformation’.
The UK looks as though it may follow suit. UK government ministers, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, asked the British media watchdog Ofcom to review RT’s broadcasts in the country over disinformation concerns. Several British journalists have also resigned from Russia Today.
A tit for tat situation
Unsurprisingly, Russia retaliated with its own bans. On 22 March, 2022, a Russian court banned Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram for what it dubbed ‘extremist activities’ regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This ban came after Meta altered its hate speech policy to allow its users to report on the violence taking place in Ukraine.
Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, lost over 70 percent of its share value following the official invasion of Ukraine from Russian forces in February 2022. Russian tech companies are vulnerable to the sanctions being imposed on the country and could see themselves shut out of vital markets in Europe and the wider West.
In February 2022, days after the announcement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Uber executives resigned from the board of Yandex Taxi. Additionally, the transport minister of Lithuania asked Google and Apple to remove the taxi app from their platforms. The removal of Russian tech companies such as Yandex is more than just an exercise in curtailing disinformation—it is a sustained effort to isolate Russia’s largest companies from the West.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
Geopolitical tensions result in winners and losers among tech and media companies. Companies like Yandex, with access to huge databases of information, will face pressure to align themselves with the Kremlin, while EU laws aiming to curtail the spread of disinformation could target Russian tech companies seen to be spreading fake news.
In essence, there is no winning for Russian companies. And there is no sitting on the fence. Western tech companies will continue to detangle themselves from business interests in Russia for the foreseeable future in response to the Ukraine crisis.