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State Censorship and Putin Propaganda: How the Internet Currently Views Russians

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Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a smartphone (photo from 2017).

It is said that the truth is the first casualty of war. Eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian communications authority Roskomnadzor blocked access to foreign news sites such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America. Facebook was also suspended, which Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg blamed on the company verifying the accuracy of Russian state media posts on Facebook.

Roskomnadzor later also banned the social platform Instagram for the country’s 80 million users, sparking turmoil in the Russian influencer industry. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has asked a court to classify Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, as an extremist organization.

All of this is a real-time example of the so-called “Splinternet,” says Andrew Sullivan, chairman of the Internet Society’s lobbying group.

The last great western social network in Russia: Whatsapp

Russia’s bans are “a sign of the fragmentation of the Internet along geographic, political, commercial and/or technological lines” and “the antithesis of how the Internet was designed and how it was intended to work,” he says.

Even before the invasion, the Russian Internet was not completely free. The LinkedIn social network is banned and the TikTok platform has already been censored. But state censorship has increased with the war, as the Kremlin tries to hide from Russia’s estimated 122 million Internet users that the war has not gone according to plan so far.

WhatsApp still works in Russia. After YouTube, the messaging service is the most used social networking website in the country: according to data from the company “eMarketer”, more than 65 percent of Russian Internet users are active on the platform every month.

To see what the Internet looks like to users in Russia, Business Insider tracked DNS rejection from various Russian ISPs using the Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI) Explorer. Business Insider worked with researchers from OONI and analysts from Top10VPN, who were able to take a look at what the BBC news site looks like in Russia using Astrill’s virtual private network (VPN).

According to OONI, Russia censors websites in different ways, either by giving ISPs a list of websites to block themselves or by throttling services “centrally”. In practice, Russians are able to bypass blocks through VPNs, which means censorship is piecemeal.

This is how the Internet in Russia will look like for those who do not use a VPN:

A Russian user trying to visit Facebook without a VPN may see the block page below.

When Business Insider visited blocked sites, they usually displayed the same thing: an apology message explaining that the site is inaccessible and directing users to various Russian state blacklists and official websites. Otherwise, there is little explanation and no obvious reference to the invasion of Ukraine (which Russia calls a “special operation”).

When a Russian device tries to access Facebook, an error message is displayed that says: “Access Denied. Access to this page is prohibited because it has been included in the ‘Unified Registry of Prohibited Sites’, which contains information the distribution of which is prohibited.” in the Russian Federation, or the ‘Federal List of Extremist Materials’ on the website of the Department of Justice”. (We use Google Translate for translation, so the translations may not be entirely accurate.). Other blocked websites display similar messages.

Instagram is also blocked

Instagram is very popular in Russia and influencers have gained millions of followers there. Before Monday’s lockdown, Russian influencers posted tearful videos saying goodbye to their followers. Olga Buzova, who has 23.3 million followers on Instagram, posted a nearly seven-minute video on Sunday. “I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t want to lose them,” she said in Russian, sobbing.

Buzova and her Instagram colleagues in Russia are now likely to see an error page when trying to access the service. She says: “We apologize, but this resource is blocked by a decision of state authorities. A unified registry of domain names, Internet sites and network addresses containing information whose distribution in the Russian Federation is prohibited.” The page redirects users to the broadcasting regulator Roskomnadzor and the list of prohibited websites of the Ministry of Justice.

The BBC website has been blocked since March 4.

Russia has a troubled relationship with independent and foreign media, periodically barring entry to individual journalists and media outlets. Although Russia has not yet banned foreign journalists from entering the country, it has tightened the conditions for reporting. The news page of the British network BBC has also been blocked since March 4.

Some users trying to access the BBC receive an error message: “Dear subscriber! Access to an Internet resource has been blocked by a decision of state authorities. You can see the reason for the blocking in the unified registry.”

When Russians try to access the BBC, another block page is displayed: “Access to the information source is restricted based on the Federal Law ‘On Information, Information Technology and Information Protection’.”

Independent media such as Current Time TV (Radio Free Europe) are also blocked.

This is the error page some users in Russia receive when trying to access the independent Russian news channel Current Time TV, a partner of Radio Free Europe. It says: “Dear subscriber! This resource is locked.”

It goes on to say: “Access to this site is permitted in accordance with Federal Laws No. 114-FZ of July 25, 2002 (On Combating Extremist Activities), No. 436-FZ of December 29, 2010 ( On the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development), No. 149- Federal Law of July 27, 2006 (On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection) and the Decree of the Government of the Federation Russian dated October 26, 2012 No. 1101.”

Users are urged to “contact authorized representatives of Roskomnadzor and the Ministry of Justice.”

The website of the independent Russian news site Meduza now displays a 404 error.

Several other blocked websites simply redirect users to an error page instead of a page stating that the website has been blocked due to government censorship measures. This is the case for many users trying to access Meduza, an independent Russian-language news site reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

VPN demand in Russia increased by more than 2,000% after the invasion

Like many Internet users in China, Russians circumvent censorship with tools like VPNs and the Tor private browser. According to Top10VPN, demand for VPNs that hide a user’s real IP address increased by 2,000 percent on the eve of China’s Instagram ban at the time.

Statistics firm SensorTower recorded a new spike in VPN searches by Russians on Monday. In the week leading up to the Ukraine invasion, VPN demand increased by 2,692%.

However, secure VPNs can be expensive, and non-tech savvy Russian netizens may not think twice about getting VPN software and instead face an increasing number of error pages. and the lack of independent coverage of the invasion. This cuts Russians off from multiple global lines of communication and information and makes them more vulnerable to Kremlin disinformation about the war.

This text was translated from English by Lisa Ramos-Doce. You can find the original here.

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