Facebook’s recent outage elicited strong responses around the world, but none more dramatic than that of the Russian government, which summarily noted that the 6-hour blackout “answer[s] the question about whether we need our own social media and internet platforms.” If Russia’s redoubled attempts to build an alternative internet and a range of off-brand social media platforms seems an overreaction to a few hours spent without Instagram, that’s because it is. But the move masks a deeper reality: the Russian government feels increasingly threatened by a young generation shaped by access to state-independent social media.
The Kremlin’s fears of social media took root in the wake of mass protests that sprang up across Russia in 2012. The protests were facilitated in large part through likes, shares, and tweets. Since that time, President Vladimir Putin has incrementally tightened restrictions to preserve his regime. In 2014, the state’s internet-minding agency, the Roskomnadzor, blocked access to media calling for mass riots, and banned a virtual private network in 2017. In 2020, Putin signed legislation allowing Russia to further restrict social media platforms in order to protect Russia’s so-called digital sovereignty. The new laws theoretically allow Russia to impose fines on platforms that do not block forbidden content such as calls for suicide, child pornography or information on drug use, but critics fear they could be used much more broadly.
Predictably, the Kremlin’s public excuses for these actions are largely conspiratorial, ranging from Putin’s assertions that the internet is a project of the CIA, to claims that society would “implode” if the internet did not bend to his will and legislation protecting the “moral laws” of society.
Russia has the most internet users in Europe, and an open and uncontrolled internet is a ray of hope for young Russians to ignore state-sponsored media and engage with Western media instead. Putin believes that the West is plotting psychological war attacks against him, and from the Russian military’s perspective all media should be placed under government control to prevent a color revolution.
Internet companies have received varied treatment from the Russian government according to their influence. The Kremlin seems to have a special penchant for punishing Twitter, which it calls a “tool of global diktat,” and has demanded that the platform remove more than 28,000 posts since 2017. Given that only 3% of the Russian population use Twitter, Moscow has used this social media platform to trial new technologies and test the West’s resolve, because the political costs of meddling with the platform are relatively low.
With Telegram Messenger, the government went so far as to attempt to block the app—a threat that it embarrassingly lacked the technical capacity to execute, resulting in the Kremlin lifting the ban in 2020. Even more awkwardly, an attempt by the government to slow down Twitter in the country resulted in the Kremlin’s own website accidentally being shuttered, along with a range of other agency sites. Some aren’t so lucky: LinkedIn was taken offline in 2016.
This is the backdrop for recent events this year, which kicked off in February when the Roskomnadzor issued a statement requesting “internet platforms to refrain from disseminating calls for participation in unauthorized public events.” Russia later pressured Western social media companies that hosted content supporting pro-Navalny protests, and it sued Twitter, Google, Facebook, TikTok, and Telegram for failing to delete posts urging children to take part in the protests.
After such a mixed record of policing the internet, the government’s quixotic attempt to displace the World Wide Web within its borders with a homegrown “Ru-Net” makes a bit more sense—though that isn’t saying much.
Companies such as Apple and Google acquiesce from time to time, like when they removed specific apps from their stores before elections last month. But the Kremlin still faces an uphill battle to properly restrict the free flow of information to its tech-savvy youth. To this end, Russian companies are working to create replacements for TikTok (YaMolodets) and YouTube (RuTube), among others. With Ru-Net, and a clutch of knock-off, state-complaint social media replacements, Putin hopes to finally allay his fears of facing a generation free of the government’s blinders.
But elaborate as Russia’s bid to jettison the free internet is, the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive stance toward social media companies runs up against the growth of pro-democratic sentiments in Russian society. A recent poll, for instance, suggests that nearly half young Russians—whose media diet is in large part supplied by foreign social media companies—disapprove of Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s heavy-handed moves to curb social media companies’ influence could quell growing opposition to his rule. But they could just as easily mobilize Russian youth to greater dissatisfaction. Once the Kremlin surmounts the technical issues that have plagued its censorship efforts so far, Putin’s internet may well prove to be a pyrrhic victory for his regime.
Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, working on Russian information operations and cybersecurity. The views expressed are the author’s own.