Russian tech giant Yandex erases damaged Ukrainian buildings from maps; Iranian regime thrives on Telegram
Bits of Ukraine are being erased from the Russian internet. As the war drags on, residential buildings that have crumbled under Russian attacks in Mariupol have begun to disappear from Yandex Maps, in what might be an attempt to hide the scale of destruction. Although this one has since reappeared, it is something to keep an eye on. Last August, users noticed that the borders between countries suddenly disappeared. Country names stayed in place, but the lines distinguishing one from the next vanished, as if the question of where these borders lie was one that Yandex didn’t feel prepared to answer. Often described by Westerners as “Russian Google,” Yandex has retained a modicum of independence from state interests until fairly recently, when, at an apparently secret meeting, it was agreed that the company would be split into two, one that would remain in Russia and another headquartered in the Netherlands. The Russian arm will be led by Putin ally Alexei Kudrin, who is sure to take his chunk of the company in a decidedly pro-Kremlin direction.
Protests in China have continued since last week. If you want to find reliable information online about what is happening there, it’s tricky, especially if you’re in China. The Cyberspace Administration has issued a few protest-related censorship directives to state media and web platforms. Search engines were instructed to “clean-up search results related to bypassing the Firewall, and limit the spread of keywords such as ‘Firewall circumvention,’ ‘accessing the Internet scientifically,’ etc.” But plenty of Chinese people are getting their protest information elsewhere — through word-of-mouth, graffiti and good old fashioned writing on paper.
HOW TELEGRAM IS AIDING THE IRANIAN REGIME
It has been nearly three months since protesters across Iran began demanding economic reforms, codification of women’s rights and, as they’ve been saying in the streets, “death to the dictator.” Momentum swelled last week, when oil workers, truckers and transportation workers went on strike in support of the movement.
The battle is also playing out online. With local sites and services under close watch by the authorities, and all the major U.S.-based platforms now blocked, the somewhat-secure chat app and messaging service Telegram has become ground zero for communicating about the protests. But it’s not just protestors who are using the app.
Mahsa Alimardani, a PhD candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute who specializes in technical censorship in Iran, told me that the Iranian authorities are “thriving” on Telegram.
Security forces use the platform to identify protesters and call for their arrest and detention, she explained. Videos of protesters subjected to humiliation and even torture are also regularly shared on major Telegram channels run by officials. Since the start of the protests, Alimardani, who also works with the free speech group Article19, has joined a handful of Persian-speaking experts who are pressuring the company to remove posts like these.
“I think maybe once or twice we had positive responses where they did take down the channels, but mostly they haven’t been responding,” she told me. What’s more, these videos often land on Twitter, where they get even broader distribution. Twitter historically has had a better track record of removing such material than Telegram, until Elon Musk’s decision to dismiss most staff who handled such tasks.
Alimardani pointed to the October arrest of the popular rapper Toomaj Salehi. Soon after Salehi was taken by security forces, a video appeared on Telegram of a blindfolded young man, said to be Salehi, sitting on the side of the road, bloodied and crying. “I’m ashamed,” he says to the camera. “I take back everything I said against the regime.”
Once the video was on Twitter, Alimardani’s group implored Twitter to take it down, offering a full translation and identifying the ways in which it displayed “a clear form of forced confession and torture,” a violation of Twitter’s rules.
“Their answer was basically ‘no, this adheres to our terms of service, it’s fine,’” she told me. “This was two days after the human rights team had gone.”
The labor of pushing foreign tech platforms to do better and uphold human rights commitments where they’ve made them is daunting, but Alimardani is hopeful. “It does really appear that there’s a massive, diverse, intersectional united front that wants the regime gone,” she said.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- An intriguing essay in New Lines traces the development and debate surrounding the idea of a “v-hajj,” or virtual pilgrimage to Mecca. It also begs (but doesn’t answer) the question of how online participation in a Muslim metaverse could be subject to manipulation, just like so many other parts of online life.
- Speaking of manipulation, Reuters has a terrific deep dive on the social media troll armies backing storied Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele, who has sky-high approval ratings at home, despite his administration’s proven disregard for human rights and evidence of collusion with the powerful MS-13 gang.
- A new investigation from Lighthouse Reports spotlights Intellexa, a spyware enterprise with roots in Israel, Cyprus, Greece and the British Virgin Islands, and its dealings with Sudan’s Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the owner of a private army that is the heir to the Janjaweed militia, notorious for the genocide in Darfur. Don’t miss it.
- Celebrated computer scientist and AI expert Timnit Gebru is sounding the alarm about the “effective altruism” movement, which stumbled into the mainstream amid the scandal surrounding cryptocurrency exchange FTX and its founder Sam Bankman-Fried. Writing for WIRED, Gebru offers a critical inside perspective on how effective altruism is “driving the research agenda in the field of artificial intelligence, creating a race to proliferate harmful systems, ironically in the name of ‘AI safety.’”
CORRECTION (12/08/22 at 10:42AM EST): This story was updated to reflect that the Mariupol building that disappeared from Yandex maps has reappeared since it was first reported missing.