What happens when social media and news goes dark in Russia

  • Social media platforms and news sites have almost disappeared from the Russian Internet.
  • The Kremlin has banned platforms, including Facebook, while others have left due to the “Fake News” law.
  • VPN software downloads have skyrocketed, but proponents remain concerned about “isolation.”

In just under a month, the Internet in Russia has become virtually unknown after hundreds of news outlets and social media platforms disappeared from the web, while global technology companies such as Netflix and Apple restricted their services.

The Kremlin earlier this month blocked Twitter and Facebook from the Russian internet, and on Monday it blocked access to Instagram. Russian influencers on Instagram posted tearful farewell videos, urging followers to move to platforms they can still access.

Russia has rapidly and radically entered a kind of digital isolation, preventing millions of citizens from accessing accurate information and online spaces to express their opinions. As Moscow seeks to stifle dissent and control the narrative around its invasion of Ukraine, digital and human rights groups are concerned about the future of the internet in Russia.

In addition to the Kremlin’s blocking of access to many online news platforms and websites, several companies and media outlets were forced to suspend their operations after the country passed a law criminalizing the dissemination of information deemed “fake” by the government.

The law also came as the Kremlin has sought to spread a mountain of disinformation and misinformation about the war in Ukraine, leading to major platforms – such as YouTube – to remove or label Russian state-controlled media.

TikTok announced in early March that it would ban Russian users from live-streaming or uploading new videos, citing the “Fake News” law. But the company went further in restricting content to Russian users, according to a report Tuesday from nonprofit tech transparency group Tracking Exposed.

It appears that TikTok blocks 95% of the content on the platform from Russian users, including the accounts of French President Emmanuel Macron and the United Nations, as well as from the most famous stars of the platform such as Charli D’Amelio.

“It is the first time that a global social media platform has restricted access to content of this size,” Tracking Exposed He said in a tweet.

Major international news organizations, including the BBC, CNN and Bloomberg, have also suspended their services in Russia, citing the “fake news” law.

said Natalia Krapeva, technical legal advisor at the nonprofit Access Now, which works to protect digital access globally.

Krabiva said the withdrawal of tech companies from Russia or platforms that severely restrict services could harm ordinary Russians, as well as Ukrainians in occupied territories who can only access the Russian Internet.

“While there are clearly legitimate concerns and the need for sanctions against Russia, some of the measures now essentially lead to the isolation and separation of people who actually oppose the war,” Krabieva told Insider.

Russians are turning to VPNs and the dark web to avoid internet censorship

As people using the Russian Internet continue to become more digitally isolated, some have made efforts to stay connected through the use of VPNs. VPNs allow people to connect to the Internet through a remote secondary server that can bypass the restrictions of a specific country.

Surfshark, A


VPN

A Lithuania-based company told Insider that its average weekly sales in Russia have increased 3,500% since February 24 – the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The company said that the largest increase occurred on March 5 and 6, when Russia announced that it would take measures to block access to Twitter and Facebook.

said Gabriel Rassetti, a spokesperson for Surfshark.

VPN demand has surged amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to data from digital trend and insight firm SensorTower. The company said demand for VPN services in Russia hit a new peak on Monday at 2692% compared to average demand in the week prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

As Russia increasingly limits Internet access, some outlets and platforms have also tried to build censorship solutions. The New York Times has launched a channel on Telegram with updates on the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Twitter last week published a copy of its social networking platform Tor, Ars Technica reported, although it did not link the announcement to the invasion. (Tor is a program that allows users to browse the web anonymously and can be used to access the dark web.)

The Russian government has blocked at least 384 domains related to its invasion of Ukraine since the conflict began as of Monday, according to VPN review and tracking company Top10VPN, including the websites of global news outlets, BBC News, Deutsche Welle, Ukrayinska Pravda and Radio Free Freedom. .

In total, 203 news domains are blocked in Russia, according to Top10VPN, mostly from Ukrainian news services. According to the data, there are also “increasing numbers of independent Russian and foreign services with local language sites” that have been similarly blocked.

Despite the increase in VPN downloads, Krapiva said that not everyone can access VPN services. People who are not tech savvy and others may not be aware of them or be unable to download them, and there is also a cost for VPN services, especially the safe and secure ones.

Krabiva said others may have problems paying for it due to Western sanctions that have restricted access to certain Western payment methods, including Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Human rights organizations warn that the risk of Russians being cut off from the global Internet remains high.

“Millions of Russians rely on the Internet for information on current affairs and communication with the outside world amid unprecedented government censorship,” Hugh Williamson, director of Europe and Central Asia at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, said in a blog post on Monday. .

“Foreign tech companies should strive to provide services and products to people in Russia to help them access the Internet and mitigate the risks of isolation.”