Amid the war in Ukraine and the Russia-backed war coverage and disinformation campaigns, the European Union and the United Kingdom banned Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from broadcasting in their zones. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, which formerly declared their reluctance to intervene in the spread of disinformation in various conflicts, also adopted some measures to block RT and reduce its visibility. Google was forced to block RT from its search engine. This development directly raised questions about the freedom of press and the severity of disinformation campaigns.
Considering the Middle East, this situation also revealed Europe's partiality when it comes to reacting to wars. The European partiality was already clear in the immediate sanctions against Russia. However, the censorship of media was relatively surprising as the continent is known for its idle role in the Middle Eastern conflicts. Naturally, the question arises: Did Europe ban any media channel during the Middle Eastern conflicts, or is the RT ban something new?
RT’s disinformation campaigns
RT is known as a Russian state-controlled and funded media channel that actively engages in Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns for the benefit of Moscow and spreads anti-Western conspiracy theories. It is famously blamed for its active engagement in support of Brexit and attempt to defame Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. After its involvement in the election campaigns, RT was also banned from campaign events during the 2017 French elections. Amid election rumors in 2017, Twitter banned RT from advertising on social networks and started classifying it among “state-affiliated media” organizations. Apart from the country-based reactions, there have not been any collective and large-scale bans. Except for certain cases, including the Russian invasion of Crimea and the fear of RT’s possible involvement in Europe’s domestic politics, RT’s disinformation campaigns have not received a substantial reaction.
‘Is social media arbiter of truth?’
Even though Twitter initiated some fact-checking, especially for the posts of former U.S. President Donald Trump, it was a relatively late attempt. Besides, the willingness of social media companies to fight against the spread of disinformation or misinformation depends not on their own agenda but on those of certain actors.
In reaction to Twitter’s recent fact-checking arrangements and the pressure from the U.S. government, American media magnate Mark Zuckerberg famously said: “Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.” There is also the infamous data scandal case between Zuckerberg’s Facebook and the consulting company Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook previously shared the data of its online users with Cambridge Analytica, which was claimed to have a close relationship with a Russian oil company that led to the pro-Brexit and pro-Trump political advertising.
As claimed, Facebook’s content-moderation rules and hate speech actions are arbitrarily imposed at the expense of minorities and weaker actors in most cases. Minor actors, journalists and activists, for example in Palestinian territories, Kashmir or Crimea, are disproportionately censored for the benefit of powerful actors, elites and governments. The very hypocrisy brings to mind the possibility of power relations controlling the media and freedom of speech.
Debates on freedom of media
First, Europe’s sanctions on RT contribute to the already decreasing trust on the continent. They show that the “European identity” is still alive, and the “whiteness” and the so-called imagined “Europeanness” are still a major component of it. It can be observed that it is easy for the bloc to bypass the EU laws and conventions and act quickly for the benefit of the oppressed.
Secondly, the decision leads to a crucial debate concerning the right to freedom of expression in the media. According to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the fight against disinformation should not violate freedom of expression. Censoring must avoid arbitrariness in decisions and should be based on legal and objective elements. For example, in the case between the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) and Hungary’s Constitutional Court, the ECtHR underlined the danger of the involvement of public figures in censoring the press and public debate. In this regard, it might be said that while censoring, it is necessary to avoid arbitrariness, interference from public figures, and harming freedom of expression and to guarantee the rule of law in consideration of precedent cases.
In addition to these key principles, it is significant to know how the limits of freedom of expression are defined by the European Convention on Human Rights. While the freedom of expression is broadly defined, the exceptions justifying interference in it are narrowly defined. It is interesting that the right to freedom of expression is even extended to the share and spread of potentially untruthful information according to Article 10. The only exception to it might be if false information causes harm to personal rights. If the interference is lawful and necessary in a democratic society and has legitimate aims, it might be acceptable.
This also brings us to the debate questioning whether media regulation falls within the jurisdiction of the EU, especially when it comes to reviewing broadcasting licenses. According to some arguments, the decision to ban any media outlet should have been taken by independent TV regulators present in each state. Since governments are involved, the decision introduces political implications to the debate and defies democratic values. Also, the decision is not exactly based on a precedent since it is the first time in the history of Western Europe that a media organization has been banned in a whole regional zone.
Identities are still relevant
This act may be justified by some, but there are some dilemmas related to the arbitrariness of the decision and the rushed bypassing of the law. The differential treatment of the Ukrainian case compared to any other case in the Middle East in many respects, even with regards to media regulation, remains an important departure point to discuss. Lastly, it might be said that the main factor leading to actions aiming to deter aggressiveness and to fight any disinformation campaigns is political will, not the capabilities of the governments and that the reason behind inaction has not been the limitations imposed by the union or laws. Beyond the interest-based and institutional explanations, how identities still shape the way countries behave might be understood well in this case. Collective action might be a matter of these imagined identities that are still relevant in today’s world, maybe more so than in the past./DS