In early March, Russia’s internet began to feel like a ghost town. TikTok stopped publishing any new posts. All media outlets have removed their correspondents. YouTube banned its creators earning any money from 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.
Russians respond that they must decide how to remain safe and keep in touch while still being able to voice their opinions. 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. She was now in her 30s and saw Russian troops bombarding Ukraine. “I don’t know how any person can stand for this,” she says.
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It is difficult to decide how you should voice your disapproval. Like many Russians, she spoke to TIME on condition they remain anonymous as they were afraid of being caught under the fake news laws. 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.”
She keeps her own profiles on social media private. Offline dissent has already been dangerous enough for her—she was arrested earlier this month (along with more than 13,000 othersShe was then bussed to the police station, where she was kept in a small cell.
Tolerance is not the answer. Fear creates 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).
Originally proposed by a Russian ally, the new legislation is simply an expansion on existing laws. “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.”
TikTok and other big tech platforms have been around for a while ceased operationsIn the country This law is being implemented by Instagram and other social media platforms, including Instagram. They have also added labels for Russian state-sponsored content to their app and began reducing its distribution. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism Has tracked all platforms that have adapted to Russia’s new norms.
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That affects Russian influencers who’ve made their livelihood on the platform. Niki Proshin was an influencer who posted TikTok videos showing his day to date. His daily food routineHere’s a link to a helpful guide. 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 posted previously videos from protests in Saint Petersburg. However, he claims that he was not involved in them but simply documented their events 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 also points out the fact that many Russian celebrities, who had spoken out against the invasion, suddenly discovered their shows were no longer listed on the state channels. “It sends out a particular signal,” he says. “If you go against us, we’re going to kill your career and kill everything.”
Russians who live outside Russia are now also afraid. “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.”
According to her, they were trying to get software through VPNs that could allow them to access the darkest sites. She says they all opposed the invasion and that the meeting was an offline forum to discuss the unimaginable crackdown on freedom of expression. “They mostly just got drunk and really sad,” she says.
The hottest thing in Russia is to get together and install VPN software. The overall interest in VPNs has skyrocketed Nearly 1,000% According to one study. However, using a VPN can still be dangerous.
“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. Some VPNs could have Russian backdoor access, and Russia might have developed ways to inspect how traffic moves through VPNs, which could expose users.
Nevertheless, there are some apps and sites that continue to function as before and they have evolved into their own type of social gathering space. Clubhouse, which hosts a variety of events and activities for members is just one example. Chat room for rolling conversationsThe broadcasting will continue for approximately two weeks in English, Russian, or Ukrainian. This room provides updates about the invasion and discusses its ramifications. It also acts as a place for Russians to express their dismay to the rest the world.
Telegram is also popular among Russian dissidents, as well as opponents to Vladimir Putin. Russian-language Telegram group discussing Ukraine Attracted 2.7 millions followersLogically’s analysis shows that February 24th has been the most popular day for social media monitoring firm Logically. There, much of the conversation isn’t about international sanctions or economic impact—it’s how to get your VPN running.
Pavel Durov, CEO of Telegram on March 7, Reassurance for 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.”