By Nicolas Surges
On February 26, 2022, Meta began ramping up their independent fact-checking on posts about Ukraine, labelling those which originated from Russian state-owned agencies or media groups and banning Russian authorities from running ads on their platform. The following day, the social media giant purged a network of accounts, pages, and groups on Facebook and Instagram under their “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” (CIB) rules. This network, which operated out of Russia and Ukraine, used fake accounts to circulate anti-western and pro-Russian propaganda. Meta also shared information about these networks with other social media giants, such as Twitter.
Meta’s crackdown followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, which has in many ways been a two-front war: one fought on the ground, and one fought via (social) media networks. The Russian Federation has gone to great lengths to craft a state narrative of the ensuing war, which it characterizes as a “special operation”. Western media outlets and social media corporations have responded with a coordinated effort to remove Russian disinformation from their platforms, resulting in an information arms race between Russia and the outside world as both parties attempt to control how the war in Ukraine is reported. Following some of the key moments in this information war can help us in understanding the complexity controlling disinformation and propaganda as each action leads to a counterreaction, effectively resulting in a stalemate.
Hoskins and O’Loughlin’s 2015 think piece on how media is mobilized in a wartime context used the term “arrested war” in reference to the then-recent annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. In this paradigm, participants harness the unpredictability and ubiquity of social media to their own ends by filtering it through professionalized channels (such as state and mainstream media). As the authors state: “Any content that is acclaimed as alternative, oppositional, or outside only acquires significant value when acknowledged and remediated by the mainstream.” The current war in Ukraine gives us a clear example: while Western media outlets have extensively sourced footage being shot by bystanders on the ground in Ukraine, state media in the Russian Federation have been very selective with their broadcasts, eschewing eyewitness accounts in favour of carefully curated correspondence by reporters.
Television was one of the first media to be affected by the conflict. In Canada, telecom providers Rogers, Bell, and Shaw removed the state-owned news network Russia Today from their channels. In the European Union, the Council introduced measures to suspend the broadcasting activity of Sputnik and Russia Today, stating that both are under “permanent direct or indirect control of the authorities of the Russian Federation and are essential and instrumental in bringing forward and supporting the military aggression against Ukraine.”
Simultaneously, Russia cracked down on independent media within the country. On March 4, the Duma added Article 207.3 to the Russian Criminal Code, which prohibits “Public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” (as defined by the state). The punishment for violating the new law is up to 15 years in prison depending on the perceived severity, leading western news organizations such as BBC, CBC, Bloomberg, and CNN to temporarily suspend their activity in Russia to protect their staff. As the Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg John Micklethwait stated: “The change to the criminal code, which seems designed to turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association, makes it impossible to continue any semblance of normal journalism inside the country.”
Russia’s blocking of the BBC’s website prompted the UK-based national broadcaster to harken back to the past, reviving English-language shortwave radio broadcasts into Ukraine and parts of Russia. The BBC was followed by Austrian broadcaster Österreichischer Rundfunk. In this manner, some broadcasters were able to circumvent the Russian Federation’s ban on news as reported on the internet. The state of Russian radio within Canada seems uncertain: in a recommendation to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, telecommunications giant Rogers suggested that Canada ban all broadcasters controlled by regimes that the country is currently sanctioning.
On March 4, Russia’s internet censorship agency Roskomnadzor then announced that it would soon be blocking access to Facebook from within the country, stating that the corporation was breaking the law by removing Russian media from its platform and thus limiting free access to information. Perhaps in a retaliatory measure, Reuters then reported that Meta had instructed its moderators to relax their standards on hate speech for posts calling for violence against Putin or Russian soldiers currently invading Ukraine. The policy change, stated to be only temporary, does not apply to incitement against Russian civilians and only applies to users from a select number of countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. As Meta’s President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg stated: “Our policies are focused on protecting people’s rights to speech as an expression of self-defence to a military invasion of their country. The fact is, if we applied our standard content policies without any adjustments we would be removing content from ordinary Ukrainians expressing their resistance and fury at the invading military force, which would be rightly viewed as unacceptable.” On March 21, a Russian court made good on the state’s threats by banning both Facebook and Instagram from the country, with Russia’s FSB security service accusing Meta of “creating an alternate reality” in which “hatred for Russians was kindled”.
Tech-savvy Russians have responded to the increasing information blackout in the country by turning to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), a private, encrypted network connection that allows a publicly linked network to obfuscate a user’s IP and bypass firewalls blocking government-censored material. On February 27, monitoring firm Top10VPN reported a 354% increase in demand from Russian IPs when compared to the daily average from February 16 to 23 (the week before the invasion). On March 14, this peaked at a 2,692% increase in demand compared to the same pre-invasion average, prompted in part by a Russian ban of META platforms Facebook and Instagram.
Because access to paid VPN services have been hampered by Visa and Mastercard suspending operations in the country, some VPN providers such as the Canadian-based company Windscribe, have elected to waive their subscription cost to Russian users. While the number of Russians querying or downloading VPNs has dropped since mid-March and continues to fluctuate it remains consistently higher than the pre-invasion average, suggesting that Russians are continuing to look for outside information.
Now Russian censors have turned their sights towards YouTube. In a statement on March 18, Roskomnadzor accused the Google-owned sharing platform of running anti-Russian ads that encouraged the sabotage of railways, stating that “the actions of the YouTube administration are of a terrorist nature and threaten the life and health of Russian citizens.” The agency has since announced that it is drawing up protocols against Google for not removing “extremist information calling for violent actions against Russian military” and “false content” that “discredits the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”. Wikipedia too has earned the ire of the state for not deleting content that contradicts the Russian Federation’s state narrative and faces similar administrative sanctions from the Russian government.
Another battlefield in this information war are messaging services. Apps with built-in encryption such as Signal and Telegram have long been favoured by both activists and propagandists because of the lack of moderation. In a Twitter post, Dr. Ian Garner – who researches Russian propaganda – reported that Telegram has since overtaken WhatsApp as the most popular messaging app within Russia. This is in many ways a double-edged sword. Channels on Telegram have allowed those on the ground in Ukraine to report on events as they happen, potentially allowing ordinary Russians to bypass heavily curated state media. And yet, the lack of moderation also means there’s no effective mechanisms to prevent the proliferation of troll farms. As Garner summarized: “That’s a lot of Russians with access to non-state news”, but also “a lot of people with access to some terrifying pro-state bubbles”.
In the wake of the invasion Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, posted on the app’s Russian-language channel about his concerns that his creation was “increasingly becoming a source of unverified information. He also stated he was worried about Telegram’s potential to “incite ethnic hatred”. When Durov hinted that Telegram might have to lock channels related to Russia or Ukraine, the negative backlash from users led him to backtrack. Activity on apps remains underreported in mainstream media, perhaps in part because there is little way for states to effectively control it.
It is difficult to gauge what percentage of the Russian population supports the War in Ukraine, especially since Western journalists have effectively been banned from the country under penalty of fines or imprisonment. A March survey by Russian pollster Levada found that 83% of those polled approved of Putin’s performance – up from 71% the previous month. Nevertheless, there are some indications that public opinion is shifting. Jeremy Fleming, the head of the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has reported low morale among invading troops, with Russian soldiers disobeying orders or sabotaging their own equipment. And within Russia, there have been multiple anti-war protests even in the face of increasing fines or jail time for those who openly criticize the war effort.
While the Russian Federation’s robust responses to Western interventions and its tight control over domestic media might lead some to declare it the victor in the ongoing information war over Ukraine, the ever-expanding net of Russian administrative sanctions and legislation intended to penalize the dissemination of materials deemed offensive to the state are in themselves proof of the state’s inability to completely control how war is reported. The “digital Iron Curtain” is not absolute: Russians have continued to access information that contradicts state narratives through shortwave radio broadcasts, word-of-mouth from friends and family who live abroad, VPNs, and messaging services such as Telegram.
The permeability of information in the digital landscape is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. While it ensures that censorship and propaganda are never absolute, it also makes it difficult to uphold journalistic standards or to guarantee free access to information.