Russia’s digital scramble to control the ‘coup’ narrative
The infamous information manipulation strategies of the Kremlin were seriously tested over the weekend following Wagner Group mercenaries’ near-descent on Moscow. Russian censors were swift to respond on some fronts. News sites and aggregators became inaccessible online — Google News was blocked by five major internet service providers, including the country’s state-owned telco, Rostelecom. Social media platforms, including the super-popular social media and messaging app Telegram, also faltered, with service shutdowns in Moscow, St. Petersburg and along the route from Rostov-on-Don — which the Wagner Group swiftly, if briefly, occupied — to Moscow.
Russians looking for real information about why Wagner troops traveled all that way only to turn around, and why Wagner’s leader hightailed it to Minsk, were hard-pressed to find it. It wasn’t surprising. Since Russia’s war on Ukraine began, news outlets that aren’t aligned with the Kremlin have scarcely been able to operate, and the vast majority of independent media and their journalists now work outside the Russian territory. In the days since the not-coup, even more websites have been taken down, and searches on Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s name were blocked on Yandex, Russia’s leading search engine, and on VK, the country’s answer to Facebook.
While Russia watchers observed Kremlin-aligned media handling the incident somewhat clumsily, Prigozhin seemed to have captured much of the narrative thanks to his Telegram channel, a signature platform that he has leveraged for some time. Prigozhin has long been a savvy propagandist and early player in the global disinformation game. He launched and led Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that became notorious for its attempts to malignly influence the 2016 U.S. national elections.
The particulars of this week’s events aside, I find myself thinking about the broader effects of the past 16 months on Russia’s information environment. Sure, Russia was never shy when it came to internet censorship — years of evidence from groups like OONI and Freedom House make this clear. But the invasion of Ukraine, as well as the government’s growing need to control what information people can access, has put Russia in a digital quarantine of its own making. Major social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have been blocked since the start of the war. Hundreds of thousands of websites, many of them reporting and publishing news to high standards, are no longer accessible. And more sites and applications seem to discontinue their services in Russia every day.
Just yesterday, my colleague Ivan Makridin lamented that Slack had stopped offering its services in the Russian language. This may sound banal. But it adds to the digital and professional isolation of Russians. And it makes it easier for Putin to spread his propaganda.
A Polish LGBTQ rights activist says Twitter has handed his data over to Poland’s Ministry of Justice. Bart Staszewski, an influential advocate and filmmaker based in Warsaw, tweeted photos of an order from the U.S. Department of Justice, submitted on behalf of Polish authorities, demanding his data from the Silicon Valley company. Staszewski didn’t disclose how he got a copy of the order but said he believes it is politically motivated.
“@Twitter (now @elonmusk) is giving access to my account based on false accusation [sic] of Polish right-wing government officials. It should be a warning point for all activists and whistleblowers from East Europe,” he tweeted. “You don’t need #Pegasus, or china spy software – you just need to abuse legal tools and ask for international help. Disgusting.”
Another Pride Month slap in the face came from Netflix last week, this time in Kenya, where the U.S.-based streaming giant agreed to stop all programming featuring LGBTQ characters and themes. Netflix Africa made the change as part of an agreement with the Kenyan Film Classification Board, which restricts programming that “glorifies, normalizes, promotes and propagates homosexuality,” in accordance with Kenyan law. Although same-sex relations are already criminalized in Kenya, right-wing legislators are pushing to expand laws that would restrict LGBTQ people’s rights, with the so-called “Family Protection Bill,” which invites unfortunate comparison to neighboring Uganda’s increasingly homophobic regime.
Transgender people in Tennessee are afraid that their data is no longer safe with their doctors. Vanderbilt University Medical Center handed over medical records for a group of transgender patients to the state attorney general’s office, as part of what state officials say is a billing fraud inquiry. As per hospital policy, Vanderbilt notified the patients and their families, sparking instant concern about the safety of their data in Tennessee, where Governor Bill Lee approved a law in March that bars minors from receiving gender-affirming healthcare.
It’s a good time to start using end-to-end encryption, whether it’s the Polish Ministry of Justice, the Tennessee AG’s office or some other judicial authority you’re worried might come after your data. But that could be tough in the U.K., if the so-called Online Safety Act is to pass. This week, Apple joined the ranks of Signal and WhatsApp when it publicly criticized the draft law’s provisions requiring companies to water down security standards in order to allow authorities to more easily scan people’s communications for child abuse material. As Signal President Meredith Whittaker put it, “Encryption works for all or it’s broken for all. There’s no safe, private way to conduct mass surveillance. & no amount of magical thinking or specious claims will alter this stubborn reality.”
WHAT WE’RE READING (AND LISTENING TO)
- Jacobin Radio has a fresh new episode featuring AI real-talkers Meredith Whittaker, Edward Ongweso Jr. and Sarah Myers West on the “mundane dystopia concealed beneath the AI hype machine.”
- Writing for Rest of World, Liani MK has a great new immersive feature on how indigenous groups in Malaysia are using digital mapping tools to assert their land rights.