Russia’s war on social media

When talking about Russia, words like “democracy” and “freedom of speech” are not the first to come to mind. Censorship and control of media like newspapers and television has always provided the government opportunities to influence the information citizens consume and thus their points of view. However, rise of the Internet and social media presented new opportunities for people to express their anti-government opinions. That is exactly what happened in Russia, my home country.

Many people started blogging and releasing information that compromised the government. Because of social media they could easily and cheaply reach a large population. As social media was becoming a more  way to consume information, the anti-government bloggers ability to gain support increased. The biggest anti-government demonstration in Russian history was organized solely with the help of social media and the Internet. Unfortunately, the increasing power of social media started to many initiatives that are trying to limit the freedom of Internet usage. Many laws were issued by Russian government over the last years to control the social media.7B78941A-B7CD-4EDB-B938-6E7D361BB6B9_w1023_r1_s.jpg

Only two days ago a big messenger app was banned in Russia which led me to choose the topic for the blog. Below I will talk about some of the Russian government initiatives that had the biggest impact on limiting the freedom of speech online online.

Bloggers have to register as mass mediaf356c06a26004ae1ba8de0b79c89f880.jpg

As I mentioned earlier blogging was one of the most successful ways to raise awareness of corruption in the Russian government as well as distribute information that was not presented in government-controlled media. Because of that in 2014, a law was created that required bloggers who had more than 3000 followers to register as mass media. That insures that all bloggers who are able to influence public minds have to comply with mass media laws. Some of these laws allow government to issue warnings if they find the content inappropriate and require the media to remove or edit the content. Categories of an inappropriate content include incitement to terrorism, extremism, propaganda of violence and cruelty, information about illegal drugs, and obscene language. Not surprisingly, some of these categories like violence propaganda and extremism have been treated rather broadly and used to remove content compromising political figures or government as a whole.

LinkedInmanar-09689680014794655363.jpg

Another big event happened in 2016 when LinkedIn was banned in Russia. The reason for the ban was the failure to comply with the new data localization law. This law obliged personal data operators to process personal data of Russian citizens using servers located in Russia. That law was passed to make sure that the government can easier access user data. LinkedIn was used as a signal to other foreign social media about the serious government intentions. Some companies like Apple and Google have complied with the new law while other like Facebook and Twitter still hold the data outside of Russia. I guess LinkedIn was banned and used as a target because of its smaller number of users. It allowed Russian government to provide an example without raising a huge uproar among the citizens. In 2018 the government asked Facebook to provide evidence of compliance with the data localization law and is threatening to ban the social media if it can not do so.

VPN

LinkedIn ban decreased the amount of Russian users of the social media by 40%. However, 60% still keep accessing LinkedIn through VPNs. Russians used VPNs not only to access LinkedIn but other blocked websites as well. So naturally the government targeted VPNs. In November 2017 a law was passed that bans VPNs that do not restrict to websites deemed illegal. VPNs complying with the law are not banned. VPN services are also now required to register with a special government authority within 30 days. However, it seems that so far the law has not been effective and most VPNs still function in Russia without complying with the law. The law is still recent so it is possible that full effects are yet to be seen. Another part of that law requires users of social media to register with their phone numbers. Similarly, if you want to access free wifi in Russia you have to provide and verify your phone number. This links online activity with real identity.

TelegramTelegram-e1523653705824

Finally, just two days ago Russian government banned Telegram, a messenger app popular in the country. Telegram was initially started as a means of communication that can not be accessed by Russian government agencies. It was created by Pavel Durov who also created Russian copy of Facebook. He came up with the idea of a secure messenger when Russian government started prosecuting him and he was forced into an exile. The app was banned because it refused to provide encryption keys to the Russian government. The reasoning was that the app is used by terrorists and thus puts national security in danger. However, true reasons are probably more political. Telegram is a popular means of communication among my Russian friends so it will be interesting to see how the people in Russia will react to yet another restriction on communication.

It is sad to see how freedom of speech is declining in Russia and government seems to only want more control. The interesting thing is that I never realized how much the government has already done to control the social media. Each of the initiatives does not seem like a huge step on its own and then everyone adopts and forgets about it. And then another controlling law is passed and the same thing happens. I wonder if there is a limit on how much government control people can tolerate or they will only realize the full effect of these laws when it is too late.

11 comments

  1. markdimeglio · ·

    Nice work. Its crazy how issues can vary from country to country. As Professor Kane has put it, in America we seem to have to worry about “little brother” as much as we need to worry about “big brother”. In Russia, big brother’s threat seems to reign supreme.

    It makes sense why Russia wants to eliminate certain social media channels, as they seem to have a pressing need to eliminate anti-government opinions. It also makes sense why they would want to allow certain social media channels to persist as long as they can access user data… you can basically watch over your citizens while also being able to tell if someone is subscribing to anti-government opinions.

    The whole thing is very dystopian and I’m glad you wrote about it. Its also cool to hear about your take on the issue considering your ties to Russia.

  2. kennedy__bc · ·

    I always knew that the Russian government enforced tight restrictions around personal speech on social media platforms but this article brought light to issues that I never knew existed. My opinion on this is that although Russia will continuously pass laws restricting social media usage in their country there will always be tech wizards and freedom fighters that will be one step ahead. In the new age of social media people will always find a way to let their voice be heard whether it is through something like a VPN or another encrypted messaging tool. I think companies like Facebook and Twitter are going to be facing larger and larger obstacles in the years to come from Russia as their own user base grows more and more. It will be interesting to see if Russia just flat out bans these companies or they will attempt to work with them on regulation in hopes of avoiding larger social uproar.

  3. profgarbusm · ·

    As someone with Russian heritage I really enjoyed this blog post. It definetly made me appreciate the freedom that we enjoy here in America a bit more.
    I do wonder how citizens themselves have reacted to the legislation. Is there for instance anyone making a basically “clone” Telegram app that is slightly different and therefore will require new legislation being outlawed. Another question I have is the reaction of the big tech companies – I imagine being cut off from all social media would have a strong negative economic impact.
    It definitely sucks that governments like Russia are trying to limit opinions and freedoms of their people but hopefully social media will allow the oppressed to mobilize more effectively in the years to come.

  4. thebobbystroup · ·

    It’s very interesting to know about the 3,000+ followers registration law. This reminds me of the class discussion we had saying social media is a “public square.” While at one point, bloggers and other internet influencers could organically bring a band of people together, with more regulation (both from government and even the social media sites, themselves), it seems like the Wild West of social media is over. The public square is no longer free and does not give equal opportunity to everyone. Those supporting “the man” (by either politically siding with Russian government or financially siding with paying Facebook for numbers of impressions) are the ones given priority. I wonder what the new frontier will be for free discussion and sharing of ideas.

  5. kikinitwithraf · ·

    Unbeknownst to this post, I recently posted something similar on Twitter. In that article it talked about how Telegram is utilized as a channel to anonymously deliver news and “dirt” on Russian politicians, its no wonder they’re trying to censor the platform and others alike. At what point is government intervention to far (in the case of Russia), or is self-governance the answer (#cambridgeanalytica). Restricted the free flow of information is not the answer. Monopolizing these channels for self-promotion and propaganda is dangerous.

  6. Jobabes121 · ·

    This was a very informative post, as I was not aware of Russia’s social media censorship prior to reading this post. In South Korea, freedom of speech is very high to a point where pretty much every online/social media user literally talks crap about the President or government officials who have failed to fulfill their duties. Recently, we had our ex-President’s trial where she was sentenced several years in jail, with other government officials in the process. There was no such thing as censorship on social media, and everyone spread the news of the “rightful punishment” the Presidents were receiving. Even outside of the U.S., I am intrigued how each nation’s culture can shape the communication mechanism these days, and rules such as bloggers with 3,000+ followers complying to mass media restrictions and other blocking of sources show that there is much work to be done for social media to prosper all over the globe.

    There are more cons than pros in having such serious censorship these days, and this example accurately shows how tech-driven solutions or mechanisms are most prone to regulatory restrictions that simply hinder them to spread even if capability exists. This circles back to our discussion on driverless cars, where the technology may be developing well, yet the perception with social scientists conveying a more accepted message to the public about such technology may be even more important than the technology itself (thanks to @realjakejordon). Even the smartest people cannot go far without effective communication skills to convey their thoughts and persuade others. Same logic seems to apply in the tug-a-war between tech and regulation.

  7. Nice post. I do wonder, however, if we’re going to have to rethink what “free speech” looks like in the social media era. I’m not necessarily agreeing with Russia’s stance, but we’ve probably gone too far in the other direction, opening ourselves up to bad actors.

  8. tylercook95 · ·

    It’s interesting to see how other countries control aspects of social media when compared to the united states and its lack of control. I think the general idea of free speech is very important but as Professor Kane mentioned social media has allowed some bad people to gain strong followings through groups on social media. If the government can’t monitor the activity on social media or ban certain things, then these dangerous groups and their information will continue to be able to grow. I won’t if there can be a middle ground, where the US doesn’t ban apps like GroupMe or snapchat but could somehow filter content. I know we have talked a lot about bots posting and maybe banning bots could help filter out some of the fake news and bad data? Really cool post!

  9. jennypenafiel11 · ·

    Great post. I think when we talk about social media we sometimes confine our thoughts to how social media functions in the bubble we are in. We function and think within our reality but there are different things going on around the world. In Ecuador, where I’m originally from, the government also imposes heavy control in the online world. It is not to the extent you have described for Russia in your blog but there has been cases where the President (2007 to 2017) used the law against his critics and anyone who opposed him on social media. Other than that there is also the consistent amount of surveillance online and obstacles to access. It is ironic because the government attempts to portray themselves as supporters of freedom on the internet by protecting whistleblowers like Julian Assange, while subjecting their citizens to a much different reality back at home. Your exploration of what is going on in Russia really highlights how social media can be shaped into something different depending on the atmosphere it is in. Loved the post.

  10. jamessenwei · ·

    Very interesting post, especially in light of all the drama Facebook have been having with the US government. It seems like governments around the world right now are starting to realize how powerful these social networks can be to our society. Some governments want to control the speech that occurs on these platforms while other governments are realizing that it could be a security issue with terrorists using it, like how Zuckerberg repeatedly said in his testimonies. I don’t necessarily agree with Russia’s recently laws but at the same time I’m a little impressed with how quick they are about reacting to rise of social media. It seems like Russian law makers have a stronger understanding of how social media can be used and how it works. Watching the Zuckerberg testimony, it seems that many law makers in the US government are not as technologically literate. Regardless on the type of laws and political ideology, governments need to keep up with technology in order to properly regulate them.

  11. JohnWalshFilms · ·

    Great post, and interesting to reflect on this larger context while Zuckerberg sat before Congress last week. To Prof. Kane’s point, what are the restrictions that might come to the US given the recent developments? It seems from the level of digital competency evident from the hearings, the current Congress will not be passing meaningful legislation anytime soon, but I wonder how the public square, free speech, and our definition of mass media will continue to evolve.

%d bloggers like this: