This Week in Info War

Ukraine tries to shut down Russian social media

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The Ukrainian government announced 15 May it would block access to Ukraine’s most popular social networking sites and other Russia-based web businesses for three years in response to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine. Access to Yandex—a Russian equivalent of Google that provides search engines, maps and other popular tools—as well as social media sites Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki will be banned under a decree signed by President Petro Poroshenko. Other banned websites include those of cyber security firms DrWeb and Kaspersky Lab. The decrees also freeze the assets of, and bans the broadcasts of, Russian television channels TV Tsentr, RBK, VGTRK, NTV-Plus, Zvezda, TNT, REN and ORT.  

It is not clear how Ukraine will enforce the decree. Russia websites are extremely popular in Ukraine, where the monthly audience of VKontakte is almost 12 million, or 60 percent of Ukrainian internet users. Odnoklassniki reaches 5 million people. Yandex prides itself on its objectivity in aggregating news, and its coverage is likely shaped by the desire not to run afoul of the Kremlin. In late March, when tens of thousands of Russians throughout the country took to the streets to protest against corruption, there was, for a long time, nothing about the rallies to be found on that site. VKontakte, meanwhile, attracts a younger, more pro-Russian audience than its rivals. It is also reportedly the preferred vehicle of the eastern Ukrainian separatists, who mistrust U.S.-owned social networks and like Vkontakte’s Russian-language interfaces better.

Ukrainian officials described the move as a national security measure. “The servers of these Russian social networks ... store the personal data of Ukrainian users and information on their movements, contacts, communications,” Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from Poroshenko’s political faction, said on Facebook. Some media experts agreed. “If it will be possible to do this, this will be the greatest contribution to the protection of information sovereignty of Ukraine ever,” commented Yevhen Fedchenko, the founder of StopFake.  

However, many commentators doubted that the measure is a good answer to Russia’s disinformation threat. They noted that it is a significant blow to internet freedom in Ukraine, and the country’s reputation will deteriorate significantly just as it seeks to join the European Union. “We are turning into Russia, except we have no oil,” commented philosopher Mikhail Minakov. 

Meanwhile, Russia hypocritically tried to take the moral high ground. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, called the Ukrainian move “destructive and unlawful.” Deputy Communications Minister Volin, known for his support of site blockages inside Russia, ridiculed Kyiv's “short-sighted” ban of Russian social networks and media outlets, saying Moscow would be watching as Ukrainians download VPNs and “anonymizers” to bypass it. Within hours, Russian state TV was telling viewers how to circumvent attempts to block website access. Rights groups amplified their disapproval over the Ukrainian ban. Moscow’s official reaction also carried a heavy dose of hypocrisy: Russia has already cut off access to LinkedIn because the company refused to move its servers to Russia under a recent data protection law. Reports are circulating that the popular messenger Telegram may be next because it will not share any data with the government. 

The impact of Kyiv’s decision is likely to be far less in practice than it appears on paper. The Ukrainian ban will barely hurt Russian companies. The market is currently so poor that Yandex and Mail.Ru Group, which owns Vkontakte, have announced that the ban won’t affect their earnings. Likewise, the damage to Ukrainian users is also likely to be small. Even if Ukraine finds a way to implement the decree, Ukrainians will be able to speak out freely on other platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are still available.  

Even though the decision of the Poroshenko government is regrettable, it highlights the dilemma facing countries trying to push back against the growing influence of Russian social media. On one hand, the ban contravenes established democratic principles such as the value of a free press. On the other, social networks mislead when they describe themselves as purely tech companies. They actively direct which users see what, and they help the self-selection that can feed propaganda campaigns and empower the propaganda outlets of the Kremlin and other authoritarian regimes. Facebook and Twitter regularly respond to criticism from politicians and civil-society activists by removing accounts, banning or restoring posts, or using dubious fact-checkers to eliminate “fake news.”