Russia is determined to make RuTube happen
Russia has tried nearly every trick in the book to control what people say on social media. Teachers have been declared foreign agents for their FB posts. Teenagers have been targeted with criminal cases for jokes on TikTok. Entire platforms, like Telegram, have been blocked and then unblocked. And Russia has repeatedly pressured Silicon Valley companies to remove content it doesn’t like.
The next step: Russian-born social media platforms.
According to an investigation by the independent media groups Agentstvo and iStories, the Kremlin is investing huge sums of money into RuTube, an alternative to YouTube, and Yappy, a Russian version of TikTok.
These government-approved platforms controlled by friendly companies could give government censors even more control. And they could inspire other authoritarians vying for a monopoly on digital spaces.
So far, RuTube, which launched 15 years ago, hasn’t been very successful. In September 2021, the platform had 2.8 million viewers, compared to YouTube’s 80 million. But the Kremlin seems determined to make RuTube happen. And they’re willing to pay for it.
Authorities are offering budding YouTubers and TikTokers as much as $1,700 a month to move their content to Yappy and RuTube, in the hopes of drawing in new users. That’s more than double the average monthly salary in Russia.
But the paycheck comes with strings attached. Influencers must promise to avoid “religious and political topics.” Their contract spells out suggested language for content creators to share encouraging followers to join the platform. Not many bloggers have been jumping at the opportunity to risk their reputations and future careers by caving to censors.
VK, RuTube and Yappy are all controlled by state-owned Gazprom Media, which makes it easier for the government to influence the platforms, said investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov. “It’s easier to make them popular. You just force VK to promote the replica, and you get your millions of users,” he said.
Since 2011, Russia has accounted for over 60% of all requests sent to Google to remove content. Last year, Apple and Google removed the opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s app, created to help people created to help people unseat candidates from the ruling party United Russia, from app stores under Kremlin’s pressure. For years, the government leaned on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to localize user data in Russia, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines paid by the companies in 2021. In 2018, the government attempted to cut off access to Telegram but later reversed its decision. Last year, authorities also slowed down the speed of Twitter, after the U.S.-based platform failed to remove 3,000 posts with banned content.
The strategy has now evolved into the fervent promotion of Russified versions of western social media platforms. This would push Russia’s digital spaces more towards China’s model, where foreign websites and social media platforms are banned including Google, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. A whole generation has grown up using Chinese alternatives like Baidu, WeChat and Weibo which are heavily censored.
Soldatov thinks Russia’s highly digitized society is a breeding ground for initiatives like RuTube. Think about it. An ordinary Russian living in a smaller city and relying on a state-provided website for virtually everything — from paying bills to getting a passport — wouldn’t think twice about switching to a Russian-made browser or app. “They would not give a damn about what they are using if that could keep them still online,” said Soldatov.
Plus, Soldatov says, it could inspire other authoritarians to invest in their own social media companies too.
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