The ominous cloud of doom surrounding the ongoing U.S. investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 federal elections got a little darker on Tuesday, with Russian state communications agency Roskomnadzor allegedly threatening retaliation against Google for suggesting it could lower government-funded outlets RT and Sputnik in search rankings.
Per Reuters, Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov said he wrote a letter to Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt asking him to explain comments Schmidt made at the Halifax International Security Forum. Zharov said "We will receive an answer and understand what to do next ... We hope our opinion will be heard, and we won’t have to resort to more serious” forms of retaliation. Sputnik added Zharov was waiting to see how "discriminating” the measure would be before deciding on a response.
Schmidt had told attendees at the forum that the company planned to make RT and Sputnik less accessible through Google results. But as the Verge reported, he added, "We don’t want to ban the sites; that’s not how we operate.”
RT and Sputnik were arms of the Russian operation to manipulate public opinion via major web fixtures like Twitter, Facebook and Google during the election, U.S. intelligence agencies claim, but it’s ultimately unclear to what degree the networks were directly involved.
As the Outline noted, an absolutely massive amount of information about the alleged Russian digital operation remains vague, including whether its supposedly massive reach actually generated much real-life engagement, and it’s not at all clear escalating cyberwar is a productive solution compared to a more restrained approach of fighting disinformation domestically.
Certainly adjusting Google’s search ranking to downrank bullshit and propaganda regardless of the source seems like it would qualify as relatively restrained, though, and this specific incident may just peter out. Russia does not appear to have taken drastic action after Twitter removed RT and Sputnik from its ad networks this year. Per Reuters, Google says it does not target individual sites via its algorithm.
But in an era where senior lawmakers regularly bring up how nice it would be to weaponize the internet, it’s yet another reminder how a tit-for-tat digital Cold War could further undermine the web and drag it towards even more government propaganda and surveillance—regardless of who started it. And once that kind of thing revs up, it’s not always gonna be used against its original targets.