Banning Russia Today Sets a Dangerous Precedent

It's rarely a good sign when Big Tech and Western leaders agree

It’s been a good few weeks for Nick Clegg. In the middle of February, Sir Nick was promoted by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to President of Global Affairs for the newly rebranded Meta. And not long into his job, Clegg has made his first significant decision — banning Russian outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from Meta’s platforms.

In a tweet posted this week, Clegg announced that he had been petitioned by “a number of governments and the EU” to “take further steps in relation to Russian state controlled media”. Indeed, several countries and institutions have already made moves to limit Russian-state media in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. On Sunday, the European Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen told a press conference she intended to “ban the Kremlin’s media machine in the EU” and develop the “tools to ban their [Russia’s] toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe”. Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer called on the government to lean on Ofcom to tackle RT’s “campaign of misinformation”. Culture secretary Nadine Dorries seems to have listened, writing a letter to the regulatory body this week voicing concerns about the channel’s ability to ‘spread harmful disinformation’.

Whatever your view of Russian state media, the cosy cooperation between Big Tech and governments (or supranational organisations) should give us pause. Meta isn’t the only tech giant to intervene in what European punters have access to — just yesterday, YouTube has announced that ‘due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we’re blocking YouTube channels connected to RT and Sputnik across Europe’. Meanwhile, Twitter has declared it will ‘label all posts containing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets’ and Telegram, the messaging app, has threatened ‘to shut down channels related to the war because of rampant misinformation’. Rather than trusting citizens in Western nations to decide for themselves, Western leaders and unelected tech bosses have decided to turn off the switch, Kremlin-style, on viewpoints they deem to be ‘harmful’.

We need to know what is going on in Russia. Having access to the unfiltered Moscow line is vital when trying to understand Putin’s next steps. A prematurely published article celebrating Russia’s ‘victory’ over Ukraine was available on state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency and Sputnik’s site before being removed — a piece of journalism that revealed the extent of the Russian state’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty. By labelling this as dangerous ‘misinformation’, Dorries, von der Leyen and Clegg are preventing European citizens from getting the full picture on the political machinations coming out of the Kremlin.

Perhaps more importantly, the precedent set by such bold action as banning foreign news sites should make us worried. Press freedom has taken a bashing recently; during the pandemic, YouTube and other sites censored TalkRadio for alleged Covid ‘misinformation’, while a recent BBC Stephen Nolan podcast revealed the extent to which Ofcom was willing to silence gender-critical views labelled ‘hate speech’. When it comes to interpreting foreign conflicts, the British government has proved itself to be similarly light on principle. While British citizens who left to fight against ISIS with the Kurds were labelled terrorists and prosecuted on return, the foreign secretary Liz Truss announced her support for British citizens to fight with the Ukrainians against Russia during a broadcast round this weekend.   

Unlike Russia, Western liberal democracies are supposed to trust their citizens to have access to alternative and even controversial news outlets. Unlike the Kremlin, we do not ban or penalise journalism that does not fit with our world view. And unlike Putin, we do not sequester ourselves away from difficult or conflictual information. Press freedom is never easy to defend, but it is what differentiates us from the oppressive regime we find ourselves coming face to face with today.