Alongside its military offensive in Ukraine, Russia continues its digital battle. Since February 24, Moscow has multiplied initiatives intended to control the flow of information accessible to Internet users. On March 4, Russia’s “internet policeman,” Roskomnadzor, blocked access to Facebook and restricted access to Twitter. On the same day, the Russian Parliament adopted a new law providing for punishment of up to fifteen years in prison for those who broadcast ” false information “ on the Russian army.
→ READ. War in Ukraine: Moscow’s new turn against freedom of information
A week later, the Russian Prosecutor’s Office asked to classify Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, among the organizations “extremists”, paving the way for a ban on all of its activities in Russia. This request was in response to Meta’s decision to make “showing leniency for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules on violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders'”, as the group explained.
Finally, on April 21, a Russian court sentenced Google to a fine of 11 million rubles (more than €126,000) for not having removed content “prohibited” on the offensive in Ukraine. According to the Russian press agencies, the American giant was notably criticized for the publication on YouTube of a video of an alleged telephone conversation between Russian soldiers and their relatives in which these soldiers complained of significant human losses. in their ranks.
“An attempt by the Russian government to control the data”
In order not to see the rear demobilize or certain information leak on the Internet, the Russian government has therefore further intensified its pressure on Western social networks. For Marie-Gabrielle Bertran, doctoral student in geopolitics at Paris-8 and researcher at the Geode center, this blockage is “an attempt by the Russian government to control the data and block all speech claiming that the Russian military is the attacker in this conflict”.
However, workaround mechanisms exist. Thus, Léo, a French expatriate in Russia, explains that his Russian friends “have all kept without exception” access to Western social networks, “and every young Russian continues to be active on Instagram, but also TikTok or Snapchat”. According to him, “networks such as Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp can be accessed without any restrictions with a VPN (a software that allows you to establish your connection in another country to circumvent the bans) et are still just as popular with Russians: cafes, restaurants and cultural bodies continue to use them as usual,” he explains.
→ ANALYSIS. Ukrainian crisis: the information battle rages on
The use of this software nevertheless constitutes a ” risk “ for users because for several years they have been in the crosshairs of Russian law. “It is neither legal nor illegal” to use them, but the Russian state may consider that “The use of VPNs will be used to circumvent blockages. In the context of an investigation, this can be considered a negative point.explains Marie-Gabrielle Bertran.
For Julien Nocetti, teacher-researcher at the military academy of Saint-Cyr and specialist in the governance of cyberspace, this blocking policy “is to be placed in a long-term policy to seal the Russian digital sphere”. According to him, “there is a gap between sovereigntist projects in Russia and circumvention practices, which use services such as VPNs or Tor (a way to connect relatively anonymously, NDR) ». At the end of 2021, the FSB, the Russian security service, adopted a list of 60 prohibited subjects on social networks, as a state secret, or a military secret such as troop morale, artificial intelligence, etc.
Social networks, still very popular in Russia
Despite the ban on Western social networks in the country, “Instagram is widely used in Russia, by just over 70 million people, especially among the middle classes,” notes Julien Nocetti. The restrictions imposed may therefore have a financial impact for some users. “A lot of small and medium-sized businesses used Instagram to promote their products abroad, says Marie-Gabrielle Bertran. For these Russians and for influencers, his blocking of Instagramis really a loss of income. »
According to a study by the Russian NGO Levada, published on Friday April 8, the most popular social networks in Russia are VKontakte – a kind of Russian Facebook –, YouTube and Odnoklassniki (a social network that allows you to find old classmates) . “Instagram and Facebook, which have been banned in Russia, are used by 23% and 6% of respondents respectively”says Levada.