Twitter said on Thursday that it would ban RT and Sputnik, the two Kremlin-backed international news outlets, from advertising on its platform, intensifying the battle over Russian propaganda on social media and prompting an immediate threat of retaliation from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The decision marks one of the most aggressive moves by an American social media company against the outlets, which US intelligence officials have linked to a wide-ranging Kremlin effort, both covert and overt, to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. Twitter’s ban comes as US authorities are pressuring RT, formerly known as Russia Today, to register as a foreign agent under a World War II-era law intended to curtail Nazi propaganda.
“We did not come to this decision lightly, and are taking this step now as part of our ongoing commitment to help protect the integrity of the user experience on Twitter,” the company said in a blog post announcing the ban. The ban will not apply to any other advertisers, Twitter said, and RT and Sputnik will be allowed to retain their own Twitter accounts and followers.
RT’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, called Twitter’s decision “highly regrettable” and cast it as part of a punitive campaign by the US government against her own country. Earlier on Thursday, Simonyan taunted Twitter, tweeting that the company had pitched RT on a large advertising campaign for the 2016 election that RT had declined.
The Russian government, which in recent days has warned that it will respond in kind to American pressure on RT, responded even more forcefully. In a statement posted on Facebook, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, called Twitter’s decision “yet another aggressive step” and blamed the influence of US intelligence officials. “Naturally, a response will follow,” Zakharova said.
Twitter, along with Facebook and Google, is at the center of congressional investigations into the Russian intervention in the 2016 election. Kremlin-linked operatives deployed paid human “trolls” and hordes of fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook to push news and conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and criticism of the US government. But RT and Sputnik, both funded by the Kremlin, worked openly, using platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to amplify content critical of Clinton, sometimes paying for advertisement to boost their stories more aggressively.
Last month, Facebook said it would adopt new rules to bring greater transparency to advertising on its platform. Earlier this week, Twitter said it would add new labels to political ads on the service, identifying the ads’ sponsors.
But representatives of Facebook and Google declined to say whether they would follow Twitter’s lead in banning RT and Sputnik advertising. Both companies have recently disclosed that Russian agents purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of advertising on their platforms during the campaign.
Meanwhile, Twitter said Thursday that it had overstated its monthly-user figures since 2014 after mistakenly including data from third-party applications in its counting.
The revelation came as the company reported that its net loss had narrowed in the third quarter and that its number of daily active users had risen 14 percent.
The company said it had discovered that its measure of monthly active users had been improperly including figures from third-party applications that used Digits, a software-development program.
Lawmakers who have been pressuring Twitter to address Russian entities’ use of the platform to influence American politics praised the company’s decision on Thursday — but cautioned that it would not be enough. “I appreciate the effort, although RT and Sputnik have been known entities for some time,” said Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “What I hope is we’ll see enhanced efforts on discovering other fake accounts as well as avatars that might not be as obvious.”