Having muzzled Russian broadcasters and newspapers, President Vladimir Putin appears determined to bring social media to heel. A raft of restrictive measures has been introduced over the last couple of years. How effective they will be remains to be seen.
With much of Russia’s mainstream media effectively controlled by the government, the Internet is one of the last remaining forums for independent journalists, opposition activists and citizens to express dissenting views. Although its audience is relatively small compared with state TV, social media has proved to be a very effective means of mobilising anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011-12. This, together with the role of cyber-activism in fuelling the Arab Spring revolutions, seems to have prompted the Kremlin to tighten its grip on the Russian-speaking Internet.
A number of recent laws have sought to curb online dissent, including a ban on content deemed “extremist” and a requirement that bloggers register with the authorities if their daily audiences exceed 3,000. Officials can block content they deem inappropriate and prosecute its creators, while government-sponsored trolls regularly disseminate propaganda and fake news to confuse Internet users. A new law requiring digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – both very popular among Putin’s opponents – to store servers with information on Russian citizens inside the country, has sparked fears of a tougher clampdown on freedom of speech. However, it is not clear how many companies will comply with the legislation.
Indeed, there is evidence that the intimidation and pressure employed to control broadcasters and newspapers may not be as effective at silencing digital media. After Pavel Durov, the head of Vkontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, was replaced last year, users continued to upload material that officials had intended to suppress. Russian soldiers posted updates and photos from eastern Ukraine contradicting the Kremlin’s claim that its forces were not involved in the conflict. When Galina Timchenko was sacked as editor of the news website Lenta.ru – which gained a daily audience of 3 million – she and a number of her colleagues set up a rival site, Meduza, in Latvia, to evade the censors.
Further, technology used so far to thwart online dissent has its limitations. The principal tool employed by the state to monitor the internet, SORM-3, can block only Russian-registered sites and users can find ways and means of circumventing the restrictions. In fact, it has been reported that blocking a site only increases its popularity, while the number of Russians using the Tor browser, which prevents detection of browsing habits, is said to have soared about 40 per cent this year to more than 175,000. Putin has set a bounty for anyone who can identify Tor users.
It is hard to say how long independent journalists and their like can hold out against government censorship, but for the moment, at least, the Internet continues to provide a platform for Russian civil society to defy the authorities.