Russia puts pressure on social media to control its critics
Ahead of a parliamentary vote later this year, the Kremlin fine-tuned its strategy to pressure platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and TikTok to remove anti-government content, labeling a growing number of posts illegal and emitting a wave withdrawal requests.
So far, it seems to be working. Western-dominated tech giants have in many cases respected each other. YouTube has temporarily removed links to content showcasing the opposition voting strategy. Russian officials say Twitter is working to respond to requests to remove content that Moscow deems illegal. TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., also deleted or edited a handful of videos that criticized the government and promoted opposition street protests.
TikTok, Twitter and Google, the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary that owns YouTube, say they decide whether or not to remove content based on the local laws where they operate and their own internal guidelines. None of the companies commented on the specific cases mentioned in this article.
The September elections injected new urgency into strengthening Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to control political debate in the country. Just as it consolidated power early in its reign by nationalizing TV stations or selling them to pro-government owners, the Kremlin is now turning to the internet, one of the last havens for free speech. The move is aimed at helping the ruling United Russia party, which has seen its popularity plummet amid steadily declining living standards and is now preparing for any challenge ahead of the election from supporters of prominent dissident Alexei Navalny. who is serving a sentence of 2.5 years in prison.
The government has put in place much of the legal framework to increase pressure on social media companies, including new legislation allowing fines for companies that violate censorship rules and extending its powers to shut down their units local if they don’t remove content the government deems illegal.
Authorities have repeatedly fined social media companies since the start of the year and threatened to block Twitter and subjected it to a series of service slowdowns, known as throttling, for not having deleted messages reported by authorities. Last month, the Russian censorship agency said Facebook and Twitter must store their data on Russian users on servers in Russia by July 1, or face further fines.
Mr Putin described the efforts as an important step in the fight against Western aggression and disinformation. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian regulators were simply enforcing the law, while political analysts see the crackdown as part of a larger effort to deprive opponents of the president of a voice since a wave of protests last year and earlier in 2021. Last week, Mr Putin signed a law that would bar Mr Navalny’s allies from participating in the elections if a judge later this month declared the group as an extremist organization.
“There is now a political will in Russia to take on the social media giants,” said Andrei Soldatov, senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis. “And in the context of the government crackdown on activists, the Kremlin has developed the tools to pressure these big companies to attack opposition content.”
Russia’s new approach mirrors how other governments around the world are trying to prevent social media from becoming an outlet for critics. In April, the Indian government ordered Twitter and Facebook to remove posts about its Covid-19 crisis. China blocks Western social media entirely, and Iran blocks critical content while trying to flood platforms like Clubhouse and Twitter with pro-government voices. Nigeria suspended Twitter operations last week and threatened to sue anyone using the platform there after Twitter deleted a tweet posted by the Nigerian president that some critics interpreted as a threat of violence.
Globally, Google data shows government pullout demands have exploded in recent years, doubling in 2020. In Russia, the company removed 329,000 videos from YouTube, a 10% jump from the previous quarter .
TikTok said Russian regulators have increased requests for content removal since January, and social media companies in general have, in turn, removed more posts.
For years, Mr. Navalny’s choice of YouTube to publish his revelations about alleged corruption among senior government officials has aroused the ire of Russian authorities. The showdown between the Kremlin and tech companies, however, came to a head earlier this year when young Russians turned their Instagram, Twitter and TikTok accounts into platforms to express their anger over Mr Navalny’s imprisonment. Russia’s most successful and well-known dissident in recent years barely survived what Western officials say was an attempted poisoning last August and, after recovering in Berlin, was arrested at his return to Moscow in January. Russian doctors blamed Navalny’s disease on a metabolic imbalance, similar to a hypoglycemic attack.
A student in Yaroslavl, outside the capital, gained national attention when she filmed herself landing a portrait of Mr. Putin in a classroom and posted the clip on TikTok. She was then questioned by the police.
Other protesters noticed that some of their messages were starting to disappear. Shortly before a protest on January 23, Nikolai Shekhirev, a law student from the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk, said TikTok removed two videos he made that promoted street protests, without any explanation.
In another incident, Opposition Leader Ilya Yashin complained on Twitter that YouTube had temporarily removed a link to a voting strategy enemies of the Kremlin hope to use to cut votes for the pro-Putin United Russia party . He said a notification he received from YouTube said the link violated his fraud guidelines.
Activist media outlet Sota Vision also noticed that the same link had been removed from one of its YouTube posts. After the point of sale complained, the link was activated again.
Another video blogger, Mikhail Petrov, said the sound was cut off on a video he posted on TikTok. He had tried to draw attention to an article posted by Mr. Navalny’s team on YouTube about a Black Sea palace allegedly owned by Mr. Putin. Since then, he says, he has started to censor himself.
“It’s scary,” he said.
This story was posted from an agency feed with no text editing.
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