Avoiding the Digital Gulags: The Trials and Tribulations of Social Media Use in Russia
“Russia” and “social media” in the same sentence likely prompts images of online trolls, political meddling and fake news – but this is just the tip of the digital iceberg. While overseas the Russians have been accused of being shady manipulators of social media and international discourse, behind their own borders the Kremlin has stricter controls on digital expression than most Western countries, and isn’t trying to hide it.
Jail terms, censorship and data tracking are regular occurrences for citizens who use social media against government wishes – and even for those citizens who use it within the rules there are risks involved.
So, what makes social media in the former Soviet state unique? Well, you can set websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram to one side; it is VK, Odnoklassniki and Moi Mir which loom large over internet discourse in Russia. These obscure giants of social media – along with the legislation that guides them – offer an intriguing peek behind the digital iron curtain of today.
Big players, big regulations
You could be forgiven for not having heard of social media platforms like VK – even if it is one of the most visited websites on the internet. That’s because similar to Odnoklassniki or Moi Mir or RuTube or OK, the Russian social media platforms largely cater to Russian and Eastern European users. VK, also known as VKontakte which translates to InContact, is likely the best example of alternative social media for the Russians of today.
It is similar to Facebook in form but not in function. Users can upload photos and statuses to keep in touch with their friends, which could include any of the 500 million users from countries including Belarus and Kazakhstan, while also sharing copyrighted material. Videos and music sharing is fair play on the website – an ironic stance given some of the other regulations social media companies face when dealing with the Russian government.
Western brands of social media are still popular in this part of the world, but they must adhere to strict guidelines. Facebook and Twitter account for 20 per cent and 13 per cent of social media use in the country, respectively, but must jump through the metaphorical hoops laid out by Russian lawmakers.
For example, the data localization law enacted in 2015 requires foreign companies that possess Russian citizens’ personal data to store their servers on Russian territory, enabling easier access for security services. Ironically enough, Facebook and Twitter are among those that today appear to still keep their data housed out of Russia, whereas other tech giants like Apple and Google have bowed to regulations as reported by TechCrunch. At the end of the day, data and discourse are the two elements of social media which the Kremlin is actively trying to control.
Keeping an eye out
It is no mean feat to shape social media discourse but Russian legislators give it their best shot. Hundreds of thousands of websites are blocked every year, hundreds of thousands of users are censored and some even receive jail-time for stepping over the government line.
Case in point: A law from 2002 defines extremism as activities that aim to undermine the nation’s security or constitutional order, or glorify terrorism or racism, as well as calling for others to do so. Usually it is up to the courts to interpret such legislation and the definition of extremist material on the internet: and their view of the law can be very literal.
Take for instance this case: Anastasia Bubeyeva’s husband shared an image on social media in 2016 which depicted a toothpaste tube with the words “Squeeze Russia out of yourself!” For sharing this picture online with his 12 friends, her husband was sentenced to more than two years in prison. Or the story of a taxi driver who was sentenced to two years in prison under for comments he made on social media as reported by The New Kaliningrad. The posts in question were audio files posted to the encrypted platform Telegraph, which was subsequently shut down by Russian authorities.
According to the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, a Moscow-based nonprofit, hundreds of thousands of websites are blocked every year, often without proper justification. Several communication platforms were also newly blocked within the coverage period for failing to grant authorities access to user data. In 2017, internet freedom continued its downward spiral in Russia with over 115,000 recorded cases of censorship.
Is this the new norm?
Perhaps these stories and figures should not be too surprising given the news of the past few years. It has been widely alleged Russia used social media platforms to meddle with the 2016 US presidential election. It has been widely alleged that Russian trolls peddled fake news to anger citizens of foreign nations. Their ultimate disregard for freedom of information and freedom of speech translates into domestic social media policies which stifle debate and maintain control. But how does this stack up to other nations around the globe?
The most obvious comparison is China. The nation and their Great Firewall intentionally blocks access to selected foreign websites and throttles cross-border internet traffic. In this environment user data is also of the utmost importance. But while they block platforms like Facebook and Google outright, Russia is somewhat more flexible in their allowance. Their attitude allows the digital powerhouses to operate – but operate on a tight leash.
In some cases, the Kremlin’s demand for data storage is easier said than done. Earlier this year strict data laws left Russian telecommunication companies high and dry after coming into immediate effect without warning. The companies had only days from the release of policy detail to the passing laws to prepare for the storage of six months’ worth of citizen texts and calls.
Nonetheless, the Russians have a demonstrated appetite for data controls and speech controls. They have a track record of impacting social media discussion both at home and abroad and their stance on this digital issue does not look set to change any time soon. More regulation, more surveillance and more penalties appear to be the course for Russian rulings around social media.