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Russians face grim options on social media

Censorship on VKontakte leaves Russians with few ways of accessing information counter to the Kremlin’s narratives

Evgenny Domozhiroff, an opposition politician in Vologda, Russia, had not been blocked on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, during the 11 years he conducted anti-corruption investigations. Nor had he been shut down in a decade of posting outspoken criticism of Vladimir Putin and local officials. 

But on March 26, Domozhifoff was blocked. He wasn’t surprised. 

“This is another bad sign in a series of bad signs,” he said. 

Online censorship in Russia is escalating at breakneck speed. Russia has clamped down on access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram since the country invaded Ukraine Feb. 24. This has narrowed online social media choices to homegrown options like VKontakte, also called VK. With a dominant position in Russia –80% of Russians online use VK– the winnowing of competitive options is an opportunity for VK, but as Domozhiroff discovered, domestic platforms have moved quickly to squelch any criticism of Kremlin policy.  

The latest expulsions of foreign social media occurred suddenly, but for years the Russian government had been diminishing the role of platforms like YouTube and Facebook, where media-savvy political opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny encouraged dissent and promoted protests. 

The Kremlin’s dedication to establish a sovereign internet, which would allow authorities to monitor and censor online traffic in and out of the country, vacillated and was sometimes tepid. LinkedIn was banned from the country in 2017, but that platform had only 6 million Russian users at the time. In 2017, the Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor threatened to block Facebook unless the company complied with a law requiring the storing of Russian personal data on servers physically located in the country. But when Facebook refused to comply, it was hit with a miniscule $53,000 fine. Roskomnadzor also went after Twitter last year by slowing down access to it in Russia. 

The Kremlin’s bid to control social media is no longer indecisive. Since February 24, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube were blocked in rapid succession. Roskomnadzor classified Meta, the corporation that owns Facebook and Instagram, an extremist organization. Meanwhile, the last of Russian independent media,TV-Rain and Ekho Moskvy radio, liquidated their operations in Russia, and access to foreign media like the BBC was restricted. 

The Kremlin’s hope was that by blocking foreign social media, “people would turn to local options which are easier to police and control,” said Tanya Lokot, an associate professor in Digital Media and Society at Dublin City University.

To some extent, it worked. From February 24 to March 15, VKontakte, used by over 50 million people, saw an increase of 4 million users.

The U.S. has sanctioned VK, which was bought by a company that is partly owned by the state and partly owned by a close associate of Putin. 

VK “is a digital playground for whoever controls the company,” said Lukas Andriukaitis, associate director of DFRLab, a disinformation think tank. 

As with the banning of foreign social media sites, the invasion of Ukraine has accelerated a crackdown on speech occurring on domestic social media that run counter to the Kremlin’s approved narratives. “VK censorship is escalating,” warned Lokot. 

On March 10, the VK blocked the pages of Voice of America’s Russian service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian service, and Current Time, a 24-hour Russian-language television and digital news network. On March 22, Navalny, who is imprisoned, and opposition politician Ilya Yashin’s pages were blocked for VKontakte users in Russia because of anti-war messages. 

The logic behind which pages get blocked has been unclear. “We do not have extensive knowledge on how exactly VK censorship works. It is pretty much a wild wild west out there,” said Andriukaitis. Certainly, posts about the war in Ukraine are especially risky, and using banned language to describe the conflict, such as “war,” is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. 

With accurate news on VK about the war nonexistent, Russians are turning to VPNs to access blocked social media and news sites. A VPN or “virtual private network” is a digital tool that masks your online activity, so that it can’t be tracked or blocked at the local level. Russians have used the services to continue to access some foreign social media. Instagram, the most popular Western platform in Russia, still had on March 24 around 34 million daily users, only a 16% decrease since it was blocked the day before. 

But in most of the country, the severing of foreign social media has been effective. “Even though those tech-savvy urban dwellers will most likely be able to bypass the restrictions using VPN, they are not the majority of Russia,” said Andriukaitis.

In the past, the Kremlin has been able to prevent Russians from accessing VPNs. It had successfully banned six popular VPNs, and regulated others.

That still leaves Telegram. The messaging platform played an important role for both dissenters and government-affiliated actors in the 2021 civil strife in Myanmar and during protests against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus in 2020. Telegram has been a pivotal channel in Russia too, where the number of users increased by 46% between February 24 and March 15. It remains one of the last independent news sources. Groups fearful of getting shut out of VKontakte are posting in Telegram channels.

Telegram’s position, however, is tenuous. Roskomnadzor tried to block the platform in 2018, only to lift the ban two years later. Rashid Gabdulhakov at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands warns that Telegram faces a grim future.

“The most important question, of course, is what will happen once everyone moves their activities to Telegram? Will the state deem it extremist also or will it use the opportunity to spy on everyone?” said Gabdulhakov.

Domozhiroff, the local opposition politician, is not optimistic. “I think that unblocking and resuming full-fledged work is possible only after a radical regime change and the restoration of Russia’s democratic path of development,” he said.

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