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Russia’s propaganda machine takes another hit

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Kremlin-backed media outlets — crucial to Moscow’s disinformation playbook — are learning the hard way that Western companies still control much of the internet’s underlying infrastructure. And those services are increasingly off-limits to the likes of RT and Sputnik.

Since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin has cranked up his propaganda output and cracked down on Big Tech players like Facebook and Twitter.

But what he’s unable to control is how mostly American firms dominate the complex world of third-party services — everything from security plug-ins to online marketing tools — that power the world’s websites and apps outside of China.

Those services, which include Google Analytics, Facebook Domain Insights and a slew of obscure online marketing offerings, have pulled the plug on RT, Sputnik, Ruptly, as well as Ria Novosti and Tass, two Russian state news agencies, according to a review of Kremlin-backed media outlets by Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter.

While the sites can still operate, they have been stripped of their use of a complex web of almost-exclusively Western interconnected advertising, marketing and security services that have become a mainstay for how websites and apps function.

That hamstrings the Kremlin’s ability to target and reach a global audience, based on POLITICO’s review of Builtwith, an analytics service that scrapes websites to detail which third-party services are running in the background, as well as discussions with four security experts within tech companies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss these firms’ inner workings.

The moves came days or, in some cases hours, after Russia invaded Ukraine, but were not publicly announced at the time. Now, with Western sanctions tightening, tech companies face mounting pressure to isolate Russia even further.

“This is an evolving situation and we are actively monitoring new developments and will take further steps if necessary,” Laura Smith-Roberts, a Google spokesperson, said in a statement.

Bye, bye Splinternet

By stopping Russia’s state media from accessing a range of digital marketing, advertising and social analytics services, these companies have hobbled the Kremlin from pinpointing their messages to would-be supporters, particularly via the world’s largest social media platforms.

Before Facebook cut off access to its stable of tracking tools, for instance, Sputnik — a Kremlin-backed outlet that carried recent headlines accusing Ukrainian forces of carrying out a genocide in the country’s breakaway republics — could use the tech giant’s so-called ‘custom audiences’ to find and target Sputnik readers among Facebook’s global user base.

Ria Novosti, the state news agency whose coverage has been avidly pro-Putin, similarly relied on third-party plug-ins for its websites from the likes of Apple, Twitter and scores of smaller Western tech firms, based on POLITICO’s analysis from Builtwith.

But that access has now been denied. When POLITICO contacted many of these Western firms to assess what relationship, if any, they still had with Russia’s state media, all said that they had removed access to their services, either before or after Moscow’s invasion of its western neighbor.

Executives added, however, that websites could still embed these Western digital services into their sites as in many cases they were free to download via the internet. Internet freedom campaigners and some within these tech companies have argued for their services to be kept turned on in Russia so that locals can access independent information from outside the country — even if that allows Kremlin-linked news outlets to continue operating.

Yandex to the rescue?

In the absence of Western services, Yandex, the Russian search and advertising firm, is providing some of the tools that allow Russian media outlets to display ads or track who visits their websites.

But one of the executives at a U.S. tech company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, questioned Yandex’s ability to replace many of the niche services — and social media plug-ins — that were now inaccessible to RT and other Kremlin-backed outlets.

“Yandex can’t step into this void,” he said. “They just don’t have the expertise.”

Despite Western tech’s blanket pull-back from Russia, POLITICO discovered a few loopholes that may still give Moscow access to some of these digital services.

A clear example: Google’s servers still host RT’s email network, according to an analysis by Amaury Lesplingart, founder of CheckFirst, a tech firm helping fact-checkers do their work. A spokeswoman for Google declined to comment.

Microsoft, Amazon and Google — which collectively hold a 64 percent market share in the global cloud computing industry, based on figures from Synergy Research Group — are still providing their offerings to existing Russian customers, even though they have stopped accepting new clients in wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Spokespeople for all three companies declined to comment on who their ongoing Russian customers were.

“We will take additional steps as this situation continues to evolve,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said in a blog post.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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