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Europe’s largest tech conference withdraws invitation to pro-Kremlin speakers after backlash

by Daryna Antoniuk October 30, 2022 1:48 PM 4 min read
The Web Summit stage in 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal. Web Summit is an annual technology conference that brings together Fortune 500 companies, startups, and investors. (Web Summit)
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Europe's largest technology conference, Web Summit, sparked a raft of criticism in Ukraine when it invited pro-Russian speakers to its event in Lisbon in November.

Among Web Summit’s controversial invitees were Max Blumenthal and Aaron Mate, journalists at The Grayzone, a far-left news website known for its misleading reporting and sympathetic coverage of authoritarian regimes.

Another participant, American philosopher Noam Chomsky, has been criticized for justifying Russia’s war in Ukraine and suggesting that Kyiv make concessions to Russia in order to "peacefully" end the war.

Outraged Ukrainians sent an official letter to the Web Summit, signed by Ukraine’s Embassy in Portugal, the Ministry of Digital Transformation, and the Ukrainian delegation to the conference.

“We find it offensive to see ourselves and other honorable speakers in the same venue and program together with people who justify the mass murders, rapes, and torture of innocent women and children,” reads the letter shown to the Kyiv Independent by one of the members of the delegation.

After the letter and other persistent requests, Web Summit decided to withdraw its invitation from The Grayzone.

“We apologize for the hurt caused,” said Web Summit’s statement on Twitter.

Chomsky will participate in the event, despite Ukraine's criticism, but instead of performing on the main stage, he will speak virtually, according to Alexandra Govorukha, co-organizer of the Ukrainian Pavilion at Web Summit and head of global affairs at Sigma Software

Web Summit is often referred to as “Davos for geeks” – it’s a gargantuan event that brings together big-name startups, investors, and leading tech media. More than 100,000 people are expected to visit it this year, including top executives of Binance, Airbnb, Revolut, Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Given Web Summit’s importance and scale, “it was utterly inappropriate to give those speakers a voice on its stage,” Govorukha told the Kyiv Independent.

This is not the first time Blumenthal and Mate appear at a major tech event. They also spoke at the Collision tech conference in Toronto this summer.

“Their main narrative is that Ukraine needs to negotiate with Russia because the recession caused by the war is affecting startups,” said Julia Petryk, co-founder of Ukrainian PR Army, a non-profit organization of Ukrainian communication experts founded to counter Russian propaganda.

When Ukrainians from the PR Army movement see these narratives getting a platform, they intervene. They usually use social media to draw public attention to the issue and write official letters to companies or conference organizers on behalf of government officials urging them to take a pro-Ukrainian position.

“The mass effect gives the result,” said Ilya Boshnyakov, CEO of Ukrainian tech media

According to Boshnyakov, Web Summit received about 100 requests from Ukrainian activists, state officials, and foreign friends to remove Russian propagandists from its agenda.

Who is the pro-Russian trio?

U.S. philosopher Chomsky has condemned Russia’s war with Ukraine, but has also made a series of pro-Russian comments justifying Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Chomsky said that Putin “should be given the benefit of the doubt on his motives for invading Ukraine,” suggesting that Russia was threatened by NATO – which is exactly what the Kremlin has been saying.

He also said that the U.S. is fighting a “proxy war” in Ukraine, while the U.S. media “is pressing its interpretation of events in Ukraine” and “demonizing” Russia as a state.

The other two attendees of the summit are less known, but even more controversial.

The Grayzone, created by Blumenthal in 2015, presents itself as “an independent news website producing original investigative journalism,” but in reality, it publishes misleading stories and spreads conspiracy theories and pro-Russian propaganda.

The Grayzone denied human rights abuses by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs ethnic group. It also denied that the Assad government used chemical weapons against civilians during the Syrian war. Blumenthal supported Russia's actions in Syria.

During Russia’s war against Ukraine, The Grayzone published stories that accused Ukrainian government officials and the military of being sympathetic to Nazis and legitimized Russia’s annexation of Ukraine's eastern territories and the Crimean peninsula.

Blumenthal, in particular, wrote that the bombing of the Mariupol theater that served as a shelter for civilians was “a false flag attack” launched by “the openly neo-Nazi Azov extremists.”

Amnesty International has confirmed that the attack on the theater on March 16 was a war crime. According to an investigation by the Associated Press, the attack killed nearly 600 people inside and outside the building.

What was the response?

After Web Summit’s statement saying he will be dropped, Blumenthal wrote on Twitter that “powerful, malign forces” are silencing “divergent opinions” to “escalate the war.”

He also called Web Summit “an event sponsored by military-intelligence contractors” and said that Ukrainian officials and activists are attending it “to lobby Western governments for advanced weaponry to fuel their proxy war.”

Mate’s response was similar: He said that Web Summit “bowed to pressure” from those who oppose The Grayzone’s journalism “on the Ukraine proxy war.”

Ukrainians and supporters of Ukraine were satisfied with the Web Summit’s decision to drop Blumenthal and Mate.

“This is a very cool case about how to act and achieve your goals to protect Ukrainian interests in the information field,” said Ukrainian tech entrepreneur Yuriy Gnatyuk.

“Good decision by Web Summit, and brave to admit their mistake and publicly apologize,” said Charles Lister, director of the MEI Syria Program. “But even so, the public deserves an explanation for why the Grayzone, with its open support for Putin, Assad, and apologism for years of war crimes, was invited in the first place.”

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