In early March, Russia’s internet began to feel like a ghost town. TikTok stopped publishing new posts. Media outlets pulled out their correspondents. YouTube stopped its creators from earning money on their videos. The digital hush is the end result of a series of dominoes toppling after the invasion of Ukraine, including new Russian legislation that criminalizes spreading so-called “fake news” within the country.
In response, Russians say they have had to decide how to stay safe while keeping in touch and, where possible, still voicing their dissent. One woman in Saint Petersburg was just a teenager in 2011, when she saw anti-corruption protesters revolt against Putin but didn’t take action herself. Now in her 30s, though, as Russian troops invaded and bombed Ukraine, she decided enough was enough. “I don’t know how any person can stand for this,” she says.
Deciding how to voice that dissent is a challenge. She, like many other Russians who told TIME about their efforts to avoid state censorship, spoke on the condition that they remain anonymous because they feared running afoul of the fake news law. She says that her friends who feel they can’t stay silent are trying to find a way to speak out despite the censors. They’ve begun finding artwork and photographs that they post on their timelines in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, but aren’t too blatant—enough to give them plausible deniability should the police come calling. “Right now,” she says, “we’re scared.”
Her own social media profiles remain in private mode. Offline dissent has already been dangerous enough for her—she was arrested earlier this month (along with more than 13,000 others), and bussed to a police station where she was held in a cramped cell.
Less tolerance, more fear
The crackdowns—online and off—show Russia’s increasing lack of tolerance for political dissent, as it wages a war that has ostracized it from the international community. The “fake news” law in Russia is punishable by 15 years in jail, or a fine of 1.5 million rubles (currently $11,500, as the ruble continues its freefall).
The new legislation, originally proposed by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is an escalation of previous rules. “What we’re seeing now are not radically new laws,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a researcher of Russian media and disinformation at the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science, part of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “But it’s a more strict version.”
Although the new penalties are clear, the law’s enforcement isn’t. “We don’t really know how [the law] will work and who will be charged for violating it,” says the woman in Saint Petersburg. “For me, as I understand it, I can’t express my opinion on what’s going on if it’s not the same as the official government opinion.”
Big tech platforms like TikTok have ceased operations in the country because of the new law, while others like Instagram have added labels to Russian state-sponsored content and begun demoting its distribution within the app. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism has tracked the full list of platforms that have adapted to Russia’s new norms.
That affects Russian influencers who’ve made their livelihood on the platform. Before the invasion, influencer Niki Proshin posted videos to TikTok that showed his everyday life: things like his daily meal routine, and a guide to the Moscow Metro. They’re seemingly mundane topics, but he sees them as an attempt to bridge the divide between Russia and the West. Now, though, he’s begun deleting any videos that could potentially be caught up in Putin’s dragnet. Proshin had previously posted videos from the protests in Saint Petersburg, which he says he did not take part in but instead documented impartially. “I just took them down because I have no idea how [Russian authorities] might translate the words I used,” he says.
Scaring the population into submission is Putin’s goal, says Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer in journalism and digital media at the University of Sheffield who specializes in Russian media and their dissemination of disinformation. Yablokov points out that before the law was passed, a number of Russian celebrities who spoke out against the invasion suddenly found their TV shows had vanished from state channel listings. “It sends out a particular signal,” he says. “If you go against us, we’re going to kill your career and kill everything.”
Fears have also spread to Russian nationals living outside the country, who may be worried about implicating their loved ones back home if they voice dissent. “Everyone I know believes the same thing: that this is wrong,” says one Russian national of Ukrainian heritage in her 20s. She’s living in the U.K. but has family and friends still in Russia. “It’s so difficult to talk about publicly if you’re still in Russia, or have connections there.”
She says that recently, a small group of friends in Russia gathered to install software that would help them access darkened sites through a virtual private network, or VPN. They all opposed the invasion, and she says the gathering was also an offline way to talk about the unprecedented crackdown on their freedom of speech. “They mostly just got drunk and really sad,” she says.
Gathering to install VPN software might be the hottest ticket in Russia right now. Overall, interest in VPNs has soared nearly 1,000 percent according to one analysis. Using a VPN is still potentially risky, however.
“Some VPNs are created more equal than others,” says Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Surrey. If the server is based in Russia, “it’s not going to prevent them tracking you down if they can take a look at that server. Others with servers overseas might be known to the security services, and hence you connecting is a dead giveaway,” he says. There are concerns that some VPNs may have backdoor access for Russian authorities, while Russia may have advanced ways of examining how internet traffic flows through a VPN, which could put users at risk.
Still, some sites and apps continue as usual and have become their own kind of gathering place. One of those is Clubhouse, where a rolling chat room in Ukrainian, Russian and English is approaching two weeks of non-stop broadcasting. The room gives updates on the invasion, discusses the ramifications for the world, and acts as an under-the-radar place to vent for Russians opposed to the war as they speak to the rest of the world about their disgust.
Many have also turned to Telegram, where Russian dissidents and opponents of Vladimir Putin are thriving. Russian-language Telegram groups discussing Ukraine have gained 2.7 million followers since Feb. 24, according to an analysis by social media listening firm Logically. There, much of the conversation isn’t about international sanctions or economic impact—it’s how to get your VPN running.
On March 7, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov reassured users that he wouldn’t submit to Russian government demands to breach users’ privacy by handing over their personal details.
Fears and workarounds are well-founded, says Yablokov: “It is frightening, especially if your whole life, property, family connections, work and everything is in Russia.”
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