In a surprise move, RT (formerly known as Russia Today) was temporarily banned from posting articles, photos and videos to Facebook. The ban was instituted yesterday after RT allegedly ran a pirated stream of Obama's last press conference. The ban was scheduled to be lifted at 6:35AM AEDT on Sunday, the day after Trump's inauguration. Facebook lifted the ban at around 6:35AM this morning, after around 20 hours.
Image: Getty / Kevin Dietsch-Pool
While RT was banned from posting articles, the news outlet was still able to post text directly to Facebook. The Kremlin-funded media outlet was an early and vocal supporter of US President-elect Donald Trump, leading some people to find the timing of the ban suspicious.
"I'm not surprised. If the Department of State could block oxygen to us, they would do it", RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan was quoted saying overnight.
"We were blocked while livestreaming Obama's final press-conference. Such things happen because (for ex.) some other news media livestreams carry the same shots and feed, and Facebook considers this a copyright violation," RT said in a statement on Facebook.
RT seems to believe that there was direct US government involvement in the ban and planned to fight it before it was lifted. The Russian news outlet claims that they were running an Associated Press stream of the press conference. The organisation that supposedly sent the copyright notice, Current Time TV, reportedly told RT that they did no such thing.
Current Time TV sent RT a statement stating that, "the channel has not sent any complaints regarding RT or any other organisations in connection with the live feed."
This is the first time that Facebook has blocked RT's content from appearing on the service, and no other news outlet in recent memory has been punished on the platform in a manner like this.
RT's connection to the Russian government (the network was formerly known as Russia Today and is still financed by the Kremlin) has made it a lightning rod in the debate over disinformation campaigns and Donald Trump's election. The American and British intelligence communities have repeatedly alleged that news outlets like RT helped get Trump elected by spreading biased information.
Sceptics have noted that RT has an incredibly small audience in the United States, and even if it was blatantly cheerleading for Trump (which it was) any impact on the final election results would have been minimal. But that hasn't stopped the intelligence community from more or less declaring war on news outlets like RT as Trump continues to dispute the allegations.
A few hours after the Facebook ban, RT claimed that some users had complained about not being able to see news from the organisation on other social media platforms. RT has accounts on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. All appeared to be up and running.
"There are some reports of people having trouble reaching RT on social platforms. We would like to hear, whether any of you experience such (except for lack of news on Facebook)," RT said, without getting specific. The comments on the Facebook post suggested that RT was still available across all other platforms everywhere from Thailand to Australia to California.
Notably, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has advocated for the creation of a new US propaganda agency modelled after the USIA, America's propaganda arm during the first Cold War. But it seems unlikely that a Trump administration would use such a news outlet to fight against Russia. Quite to the contrary, a new law that was initiated before the US election will give the new president unprecedented power over the Broadcasting Board of Governors, America's current USIA-lite version of RT.
Though the ban has been lifted, it is still unclear why RT was specifically banned in the first place. We reached out to the State Department, RT and Facebook for comment but had not heard back at time of writing.