This Week in Info War

Putin’s National Guard to monitor social media

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Russia’s National Guard plans to train IT experts and specialists to monitor social networks, the Interfax news agency reported 19 May, citing Sergei Melikov, first deputy commander of the National Guard. “We’re looking at areas of work we would like to develop—mainly social media monitoring,” Melikov told reporters. Monitoring social networks would help law enforcement prevent attacks against the agency, like the one in the Republic of Chechnya in late March 2017. “We realize that insurgents were coordinated remotely, including via social networks,” said Melikov.  If the National Guard had intercepted their communication, the attack could have been prevented.” 

Despite its expressed goal of helping combat insurgents, the initiative is almost certainly aimed at boosting the ability of President Vladimir Putin’s regime to monitor societal developments—especially opposition activity at a time of increased political unrest and approaching presidential elections. In March, the government announced that a task force headed by former Interior Ministry official Larisa Goryachko, will comb the internet for “extremist content” posted online. Anatoly Yakunin, the head of Moscow’s Interior Ministry, told journalists in March 2016 that combating extremism would be the Moscow police’s “highest priority.” 

Extremism is a vague rubric, however, and can be applied to almost any political force the government dislikes; the Kremlin distrusts political spontaneity of any kind, even when it agrees with official positions. Convictions related to “extremist content” posted online have skyrocketed in recent years as Russia has adopted strict new anti-terror laws. Moscow police reported in July 2016 that online extremism in the first half of 2016 had jumped 86 percent compared to the first six months of 2015. In a report released in February this year, the international human rights group Agora found that internet freedom in Russia has shrunk in recent years. Since early 2015, the government has jailed at least 47 people for their statements online. Many more saw their websites and blogs classified as extremist or blocked by the government. Still others received threats or were subjected to physical violence after expressing their views online. The state’s attitude toward the internet has become increasingly hostile, the report said: “The internet is perceived as a battleground by Russian authorities.”

The Kremlin’s choice of the controversial National Guard to take the lead in monitoring also suggests that it is extremely worried about the potential threat to the regime posed by social media. Established in April 2016 by presidential decree to secure borders, enforce gun control, fight terrorism, combat organized crime and protect state facilities, the “Natsgvardia” reports directly to Putin and is headed by Viktor Zolotov, former head of Putin’s personal security service. It also has the power to perform police functions formerly carried out by riot police units and may fire into crowds in certain situations. Konstantin Gaaze, a Moscow-based political analyst and journalist with the Carnegie Moscow Center, has argued that creation of this force was linked to the 2016 Duma election cycle, and that Putin wants to make sure that the uprising which took place at Ukraine’s Maidan will not be repeated in Russia. With the far more important presidential election looming in March 2018 and the widespread belief that online media fueled Russia’s recent political unrest, the Kremlin appears to be taking no chances.