The Media Today

Russia’s diminishing information access

March 10, 2022
ILLUSTRATION - 28 February 2022, Berlin: On the screen of a tablet (l), the website of the Russian TV channel RT can be seen. On the right, the screen of a smartphone shows the official Twitter account of Ukrainian President Selenskyj. (to dpa "Russia and Ukraine fight for sovereignty of opinion in social media") Photo by: Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Since the invasion of Ukraine began two weeks ago, Russia has become more and more cut off from the rest of the world in a number of important ways, including access to international media and the global internet. In some cases, Russia itself has been severing those ties, as it did recently when it banned Facebook, because the company refused to stop fact-checking Russia media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik. Twitter has also reportedly been partially blocked in the country. (So far, Russian citizens are still allowed to use WhatsApp and Instagram.) In other cases, companies have voluntarily withdrawn their services. YouTube has banned RT and Sputnik, as has the entire European Union. On Sunday, TikTok said that although it is still available in Russia, it will no longer allow users to livestream or upload video from that country, due in part to a flood of disinformation, and to the arrival of a new “fake news” law in Russia that carries stiff penalties for those found in violation.

Traditional media companies have also withdrawn their services, and in some cases their journalists, from the country since the invasion, in part because of the fake news law. Last week, Bloomberg News and the BBC became some of the first news services to stop producing journalism from within Russia. John Micklethwait, editor in chief of Bloomberg, wrote in a note to staff that the Russian law seemed designed to “turn any independent reporter into a criminal purely by association” and as a result made it “impossible to continue any semblance of normal journalism inside the country.” (The BBC later announced plans to resume English-language coverage from within the country.) The New York Times said Tuesday that it had decided to pull its journalists out of Russia, in part because of the uncertainty created by the new law, which makes it a punishable offense to refer to the invasion of Ukraine in a news story as a “war.”

It’s not just individual social networks or journalism outlets. Several network connectivity providers—the giant telecom firms that supply the “backbone” connections between countries and the broader internet—have also withdrawn their services from Russia. Lumen, formerly known as CenturyLink, pulled the plug on Russia on Wednesday, withdrawing service from customers such as national internet provider Rostelecom as well as a number of leading Russian mobile operators; Cogent Networks did the same with its broadband network last week. Removing them means Russia is increasingly isolated from any information about the war that doesn’t come from inside the country or from Russian state media. Russian customers of Cogent received an email on March 3 announcing the termination of service due to “the unwarranted and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine” and the ensuing sanctions and uncertainty, according to Kentik, a network-monitoring company. Lumen suggested in a statement on its website that it was concerned about the potential for cyberattacks involving Russian intelligence services, saying it had withdrawn its services because of “the heightened risk of state action,” and that it felt it had to ensure the security of its customers and “the ongoing integrity of the global Internet.”

Related: Ukrainian media battles for its future as Russia invades

Some internet advocates are concerned that the impact of being cut off from social media, traditional media, and even the internet itself will make it more difficult for Russian citizens to find reliable news about the war, and to stay in touch with family outside Russia, who might give them a more accurate picture of the war and its consequences. “Without the internet, the rest of the world would not know of atrocities happening in other places. And without the internet, ordinary citizens of many countries wouldn’t know what was being carried out in their name,” Andrew Sullivan, president of the Internet Society, wrote last week. Mikhail Klimarev, director of the Internet Protection Society, which advocates for digital freedoms in Russia, told the Washington Post that “if you turn off the Internet in Russia, then this means cutting off 140 million people from at least some truthful information”—an act whose consequences will inevitably shape some perceptions of the war. 

Blocking of Western apps and services could be just another step towards Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a Russian-controlled internet, featuring restrictions similar to the so-called Great Firewall of China. “This is going to feel like a return to the 1980s for people who lived in that era, because suddenly information is back in the hands of the state,” Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, an organization that tracks internet censorship, told the New York Times recently.

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Here’s more on Russia and information:

  • Firewalled: Experts say many Russians are using virtual private networks, or VPNs, to get around the restrictions on what they can see or hear about the war. Cat Zakrzewski, a technology reporter with the Washington Post, said that in the past two weeks, two of the three most-downloaded non-game applications for smartphones in Russia were VPN apps. However, Russia’s internet censorship technology is becoming increasingly advanced, Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who has written about Russia and the internet, told the Post. “We are moving toward the point where Russia is having the same Internet environment as China,” said Runa Sandvik, a security consultant and developer.
  • Tracker: The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University is keeping a running tally of the services and media outlets that have either withdrawn from Russia or have been blocked or throttled, starting with the shutdown of TV-2, an independent media entity in Russia, on March 4. Priyanjana Bengani, a Tow Fellow, created the timeline using a service called DataWrapper. The timeline, Bengani wrote, “includes any requests from various governments to platform companies, shifting platform policies, changes due to new sanctions and legislation, new products or technologies necessitated by critical infrastructure being rendered unavailable, as well as changes made due to increased security risks.”
  • Fresh air: The tech platforms could have taken steps to deal with Russian disinformation prior to removing their services from the country, Issie Lapowsky writes for Protocol. “It didn’t have to be this way. Social media giants could have taken any number of soft actions along the way that would have deprived Russian propaganda of oxygen,” she writes. “A lot of the things that get rid of spammers and bad actors in general would also hurt RT and Sputnik,” said Jeff Allen, a former member of Facebook’s integrity team and co-founder of the Integrity Institute think tank. “There are systems that could have been adopted much earlier that would have made it more difficult for RT to get attention.”
  • Disbelief: Some Ukrainians who have family in Russia say that their family members don’t believe them when they say Ukraine is being bombed by Russian forces, in part because they are getting their news from state media. Misha Katsurin, a Ukrainian restaurant owner, spoke with the Times about calling his father in Russia to tell him the city he lived in was being shelled. Katsurin says his father told him to stop, and then “started to tell me how the things in my country are going.” Another Ukrainian said she told her parents about the bombings, but her mother responded that ” the Russian army would never target civilians,” and that “it’s Ukrainians who’re killing their own people.”
  • Fake checks: Craig Silverman and Jeff Kao report for ProPublica that fake fact-checks are being used to spread disinformation about the war in Ukraine. In one case, they report, a fact-check of a video showing an alleged missile attack in Ukraine was debunked by a pro-Russian group in Ukraine. “It seemed like yet another example of useful wartime fact-checking, except for one problem: There’s little to no evidence that the video… was ever circulated. Instead, the debunking video itself appears to be part of a novel and disturbing campaign that spreads disinformation by disguising it as fact-checking.”


Other notable stories:

  • Jeff Zucker, the former president of CNN, reached an exit deal with WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, that paid him over $5 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. The deal was completed before Zucker announced his resignation; according to the Journal, the money was owed as part of his 2021 bonus. Zucker didn’t receive any further severance. Although he waived his rights to sue WarnerMedia as part of the deal, the Journal writes that Zucker “continues to weigh his legal options, according to a person familiar with his thinking.”
  • Paul Farhi of the Washington Post writes about the challenges that photographers and editors face when trying to decide which pictures to use from a conflict like the war in Ukraine, such as a recent photo the New York Times published of a dead mother with her children. (That image, which appeared on the Times’s front page, is here; Jon Allsop wrote about it yesterday for CJR.) “The image was so exceptionally graphic that the conversation was elevated to a high level [among editors] fairly quickly,” said Meaghan Looram, the Times’s director of photography. “But the sentiment was universal. This was a photograph that the world needed to see to understand what is happening on the ground in Ukraine.” The Times has a separate news story about the family in the photo.
  • For the Media Manipulation Casebook, Emily Dreyfuss detailed some of the harassment Taylor Lorenz, a former Times staffer who recently joined the Postl has suffered during her career writing about internet culture. “As a result of her prominence, gender, and the nature of her reporting,” Dreyfuss wrote, “Lorenz is a frequent target of coordinated harassment campaigns that include being swatted, stalked, dedicated websites built specifically to harass her, her followers getting harassed for associating with her, and waves of threats and hate that include disturbing sexualized fantasies and anti-semetic slurs.”
  • Ryan Broderick, who publishes an internet-culture newsletter called Garbage Day, provides new details about a recent Facebook transparency report on the most widely-viewed content on the site. The most-viewed page was not named because, according to Facebook, it was removed for breaching the social network’s terms of service. According to his research, Broderick says the page was affiliated with a Sri Lankan content farm; a Facebook page administrator told him the page “started clickbaiting users with sexy pictures of random women in their [Facebook] stories. Not long after, they were gone.”
  • Bill Grueskin writes for CJR about whether the US is likely to follow Australia, which passed a law that forced digital platforms such as Google and Facebook to negotiate with publishers and pay them for news hosted on those platforms. “Australia looks like a success story to those who’ve long yearned to force big tech to prop up suffering newsrooms,” Grueskin explains. “But it’s a murky deal, with critical details guarded like they’re nuclear launch codes. If you want to know how much money the platforms have paid to news organizations, you’re out of luck. If you want to learn whether newsrooms are spending that money to bolster journalism, rather than pad executives’ salaries, you’re out of luck.”
  • Substack, the newsletter publishing platform, has launched its own smartphone app, which allows subscribers to read newsletters in an app instead of via email. Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s founders, also confirmed that users can add any RSS feed to the app. Journalist and consultant Adam Tinworth says the app is a virtual moat designed to protect the platform and please Substack’s VC backers. “It always seemed unlikely the VCs backing Substack would be happy with it existing mainly in an open ecosystem like email,” he writes. Media analyst Thomas Baekdal said his advice to independent publishers is to “get out. Own your audience, don’t be just another channel on someone else’s platform.”
  • Gabby Miller writes for CJR about Ukrainian media’s efforts to survive the war with Russia. They include fundraising led by Jakub Parusinski, a London-based Polish-Australian who is now the chief financial officer of the Kyiv Independent, and “a consortium of organizations and volunteers, including The Fix, Are We Europe, Jnomics and the Media Development Foundation.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.