Controlling information in Russia: social media as a battleground
Internet surveillance and censorship in Russia, that’s what Mariëlle Wijermars, Assistant Professor in Cyber-Security and Politics at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) focuses on in her research endeavours. “I’m especially interested in the control of information. How do you, as a state, control what information circulates in society? Russia is a perfect case study.”
“To understand who controls information, it is important to look at where the battle for information takes place. About a decade ago, this battle still predominantly took place in the television and newspaper sphere,” Mariëlle explains.
“State control over information in modern-day Russia started in the early 2000s after Vladimir Putin came to power. During the Soviet period, the media was state-owned. With the Glasnost and Perestroika politics of Mikhail Gorbachev, slowly more room emerged for freedom of the press. After the Soviet Union dissolved, in the 1990s, the Russian state stepped away from the media and a small elite group of oligarchs took hold of newspapers and TV channels."
"When Putin came to power, he started a campaign to take power back from the oligarchs, including in the media sphere. Slowly but steadily he nationalised TV channels and established control over most newspapers. Since then, the news has become one-sided again, even though there still are a few exceptions, and Russian state media do not shy away from using propaganda and conspiracy theories.”
The battleground has shifted
But what might even be more interesting is that a shift in battleground has taken place. “Social media has become an important source of information for Russians and the government now tries to influence what information is shared in popular apps. The Kremlin for example paid influencers on TikTok to dissuade people from joining the protests in support of arrested opposition figure Aleksei Navalny in January. Users of the platform, however, do not know that these influencers are being paid by the Russian government. They think people they identify with really feel this way about the Navalny case and may be influenced by this messaging.”
This modern-day propaganda is not limited to paying users of social media apps and actively using the internet in governmental PR, but also includes requiring platforms to take down harmful content, Mariëlle explains.
“It is illegal in Russia to post on social media about suicide or drugs, and negative information about the Kremlin is of course not welcome either. Russian social media platforms such as VKontakte are therefore obliged by law to identify and delete such content, but it’s much more difficult for Russia to force foreign social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram to abide by these rules. That’s why non-Russian social media platforms are so popular among the opposition.”
Importance of social media in protests
The protests in Belarus in 2020 were coined the ‘Telegram Revolution’, wrongly according to Mariëlle. “Dictatorships try to control the stream of information by issuing internet shutdowns, especially around elections. In this way, it becomes much more difficult to organise and coordinate where and when to protest against unfair elections. The protests in Belarus, however, show that an internet shutdown is not enough to keep people off the streets when the situation is urgent. These protests took place on such a large scale that people could simply look out the window and see what was going on – they did not need to see videos on social media from faraway places to know what was happening as their backyard was the battleground, although these did help of course.”
“Social media is a great source of information but its importance should not be exaggerated. You can spread information quickly via social media, but more is needed for building a solid group of protesters who do not give up easily. It’s not like you open your Facebook app and start a revolution.”
This nuance is very important, Mariëlle explains. “Media framing is very one-sided and often too simplistic. Take the Arab Spring for example. The media and many commentators claimed that the revolution in Egypt was enabled by Twitter, but it really isn’t that straightforward. Social media are no guarantee to success. They can help mobilise a large group of people in a relatively easy way, but these movements can dissolve just as easily, because social media does not provide the same emotional connections as real life does. I also find it quite troubling to view social media as the beacon of democracy and freedom of speech. A lot that goes on on these social media platforms is manipulated, as exemplified by the TikTok example I gave earlier. That’s why it’s so important to remain a critical thinker.”
Social media laws
“Since October, Russia has issued a tremendous number of policies and laws connected to social media that affect society at large. These laws signify repression on a huge scale. It’s ironic to see that Russia often plays the obedient follower card in this. Germany, for example, has taken the lead in the European Union when it comes to policies surrounding online hate speech. Since 2017, large platforms need to have a complaints mechanism where users can report illegal content and platforms must swiftly respond to these complaints and remove ‘manifestly unlawful content’ within 24 hours. Russia makes clever use of this by simply stating ‘look, Germany does it too and Germany is a very democratic country, we are just following their lead in banning information from social media that can be harmful.’ In reality, Russian censorship of course goes much further than what the Germans do in terms of limiting online hate speech.”
By: Eva Durlinger
Mariëlle Wijermars, Assistant Professor in Cyber-Security and Politics at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), sheds light on information control in Russia.