In recent weeks, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has delivered damning testimony to lawmakers in Washington, London, and Brussels, painting a portrait of a company aware of its harmful effects on society but unwilling to act out of concern for profits and growth. Her revelations have created a public-relations crisis for the social-media giant and spurred renewed calls for stiffer oversight of online platforms. But Haugen’s revelations have also resulted in a less expected outcome: Russian propagandists using her testimony for their own ends.
The Kremlin and the network of news outlets it supports have seized on Haugen’s disclosures and the debate they have prompted as an opportunity to seed narratives that deepen political divisions within the United States, diminish the appeal of a democratic internet, and drive traffic from major social-media platforms to darker corners of the web. In doing so, it has painted the United States as hypocritical in its support for freedom of expression and provided a boost for China’s autocratic model of internet governance, normalizing Russia’s own repressive model.
Haugen’s revelations have energized efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to strengthen the regulation of social-media platforms, and the Kremlin’s exploitation of these developments suggests that it too has a stake in how the internet is governed. At play is a much broader conflict over the future of the open web.
Trafficking in conspiracies
The Facebook Files have prompted a remarkably substantive debate over how to govern social media responsibly and effectively, but Kremlin propagandists have worked diligently to push it in a different direction—toward undermining support for institutions and polluting the information environment. Russian state media has regularly trafficked in outlandish conspiracy theories, including that Haugen is a stooge of Western intelligence. The Kremlin’s propaganda outlets have highlighted purported ties between Haugen and U.S. intelligence agencies, suggesting that she is serving a “wider, darker agenda” of promoting government censorship of the internet. As one RT article put it, “one needn’t be a cynic” to suggest that her testimony about how states deemed “enemy countries” have exploited Facebook in ways that are a threat to U.S. national security “may have been insidiously influenced to some degree.”
Building on the narratives of corruption that it frequently deploys to undermine trust in authorities, Kremlin-linked media advanced the idea that Big Tech buys and controls government. Russian State media has promoted the idea that the whistleblower is a “Big Tech false flag,” pointing to “theories circulating out there” that “the whole thing was theater” orchestrated by “the worst of the swamp” in order to advance the policy priorities of the platform itself. In doing so, state media is boosting partisans on both sides of the aisle. RT has found sympathetic voices to amplify on the political left, including Glenn Greenwald and George Galloway, a former member of British Parliament, while also promoting claims of anti-conservative bias.
Kremlin-linked media have also amplified the argument that Haugen’s testimony received substantial coverage in the “mainstream media” because it advanced the “pro-censorship, pro-control agenda” of “faux-communitarian pro-censorship elites”—unlike WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, for example. That these narratives critique internet censorship is ironic given that the Kremlin itself substantially restricts press and internet freedoms.
Recognizing that debates over whether Big Tech is censoring political speech has become a partisan issue in the United States, the Kremlin has used the episode to drive a wedge between left and right—part of its ongoing efforts to use the “techlash” as a vehicle to exploit and deepen domestic political divisions.
The Kremlin’s push to spin the Facebook Files also reflects an effort to dampen the appeal of a democratic internet. Russian authorities have in recent months pushed through a draconian new internet monitoring regime and forced Western tech companies to abide by strict data-localization rules. Moscow has justified these policies in part by painting the Western internet as a threat to Russia. To the extent that they highlight harms on the open web, Haugen’s revelations can be cynically used to advance that argument. They also create an opportunity to draw a false equivalence between recent calls for platform regulations that respect rights to privacy and speech with its own, heavy-handed approach to internet governance, which does not.
At a tactical level, Moscow’s approach may be an effort to drive Americans from major social media platforms to darker corners of the internet, such as Telegram and Parler, which Kremlin media actively touted in the wake of the Jan. 6 riots. These platforms are largely unmoderated, which means they are awash in divisive content that drives polarization up and trust down, and that they have not implemented the type of trust and safety efforts that larger platforms have used to curb information operations. The episode has also served as a vector for promoting complaints of anti-Russian bias in U.S. media, a frequent Kremlin trope.
China as a model for internet governance
Russian state media has seized on Haugen’s testimony to argue that her revelations reveal the benefits of China’s model of internet governance. “As a whistleblower lays bare the ‘profits before people’ mentality of Silicon Valley’s social media behemoths and their disregard for the social discord sown on their platforms, China is showing how these issues should be handled,” an American writer with a column for the Chinese TV network CGTN wrote in an article for RT. “China is taking decisive action to limit the power of this technology that will destabilize civil society around the globe.”
This activity is emblematic of the Kremlin’s efforts to use fringe, Western political commentators as mouthpieces for its preferred narratives in order to frame those narratives as authentic advocacy and increase their perceived legitimacy. Importantly, these “fellow travelers” come by their beliefs honestly—Moscow simply uses them as vectors to push viewpoints that are broadly aligned with its own. Beijing frequently amplifies the disparate constellation of alternative thinkers, pseudo-intellectuals, and conspiracists that are a fixture of Kremlin propaganda. In this case, Moscow is promoting a voice supported by Beijing—and doing so in order to explicitly promote China’s assertive, repressive approach to internet governance as a model. It does so as part of a broader effort to make the world safe for repression of its own.
The future of the open web
Haugen’s revelations come at a fraught moment for debates over how to govern the internet. These debates exist within the United States—between those who believe that platforms have not been forward leaning enough in their efforts to impose consequences on users who violate their content moderation policies and those who see such actions as a violation of their free-speech rights. There are sharp differences too among democratic societies, in particular between the United States, which has largely taken a hands-off approach to internet regulation, and its European counterparts, which have begun developing their own frameworks for digital governance.
These differences pale in comparison to those between democracies and their authoritarian challengers, Russia and China chief among them, who wield information as a weapon abroad and censor it at home. Haugen’s revelations are creating an opportunity for autocrats to make the case, not entirely without merit, that their repressive models of internet governance address some of the harms that the Facebook Files have laid bare. If Moscow and Beijing succeed, they will put at risk transparent, accessible, global internet that supports democratic values and strengthens democratic societies.
To preserve a free and open internet, democracies, starting with the United States, should work together to develop a common approach to internet governance that reflects liberal principles and to push back on efforts to advance authoritarian alternatives. If the Biden administration is serious about using the Summit for Democracy as a venue for stemming the advance of authoritarianism, it should prioritize making progress toward that goal.
Jessica Brandt is policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology.
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