In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Twitter will impose new limits on government accounts belonging to countries at war as those governments also restrict the free flow of information within their own borders.
in a blog updateTwitter explained that the new policy is designed to reconcile the “serious information imbalance” that occurs when an authoritarian government blocks access to online platforms while continuing to leverage those same platforms for propaganda. “Particularly in times of active armed interstate conflict, the damage created by this imbalance is acute; access to information and the ability to share information are of paramount importance,” wrote Sinéad McSweeney, vice president of global public policy at Twitter.
Starting with Russia, accounts governed by the new rules will be excluded from the expansion of Twitter’s browse, search, and home features. To meet Twitter’s threshold for new account limitations, a country’s censorship of online information must affect the majority of its population or severely limit a smaller group of people within its borders. To determine which conflicts qualify under the set of rules, Twitter is using a definition of interstate armed conflict from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The new rules will apply even in situations where Twitter is not banned within the country in question.
Hundreds of accounts affiliated with the Russian government have been actively promoting a highly misleading portrayal of the invasion since its early days. One chart of Russian embassy accounts in particular has served as a “primary testing vehicle” for some strains of Russian disinformation, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Laboratory. Twitter reduced the reach of Russian state-linked media accounts in late February, but the new policy will generally hide Russian government-affiliated accounts from the site’s recommendation and discovery features.
Twitter also announced a new policy that will require governments and state-linked accounts to remove any images depicting prisoners of war, a change now being added to Twitter. rules against doxing. Twitter will still allow accounts to share some POW images if they serve a “compelling public interest”, including journalism, but now explicitly prohibits any PoW media sharing with abusive intent.
While Twitter’s policy changes primarily have Russia in mind given its bloody aggression in neighboring Ukraine, the Ukrainian government could also come into conflict with the new rules. In early March, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry began sharing graphic depictions of the enemy, including images of Russian prisoners being interrogated. While Ukraine was likely trying to counter Russia’s disinformation campaign and stoke anti-government sentiment in the country, the strategy could arguably violate the laws of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war.
Unfortunately, Twitter’s new rules are timely. In recent days, all the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been revealed. As Russian troops withdraw from some besieged cities, the aftermath paints a chilling portrait of mass civilian massacres, torture and kidnappings, and those revelations are just beginning.