Why is Russia trying to censor the Internet more and more

Yandex News controlled from 2023 by the Russian social network Vk, a further step from the Kremlin towards total censorship? This is how we titled this article, the answer is already known or about to be. In a press release issued last week, the Russian group Yandex announced that it is selling some of its activities to Vk, especially its media platform. So imagine Google selling its famous Google News to Facebook. Lunar on the Western side, possibly in a Russia where the propaganda of power and the control of news companies is the daily reality six months after the start of the war in Ukraine.

“The conflict, in all its dimensions, is only an accelerator of tendencies that will exist in Russia for ten, fifteen, twenty years. This is the case of the Internet. The beginning of digital control dates back to 2012”, analyzed Kévin Limonier, lecturer at the French Institute of Geopolitics and deputy director of the Geode research center, specializes in cybernetic and information issues. With the high point of the start of the war in Ukraine, which marked the total shutdown of independent and/or opposition media. So, how can we imagine that censorship can be further strengthened in Russia?

In continuation of what happened since 2012

But RuNet was born free, as Olga Bronnikova, research professor at the University of Grenoble Alpes, sociologist and specialist in Russia, reminds us of 20 minutes at the beginning of the conflict. “Unlike China, where the internet was very controlled from its inception, in Russia it is decentralized and independent.” So taking office only officially began in 2012 with the establishment of a more restrictive legislative arsenal for the media and journalists.

Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the office of Reporters Without Borders Western and Central Europe, however, puts the planning of a Kremlin takeover of Yandex News ahead of time. “According to Lev Gershenzon, former head of Yandex News, who can be considered a whistleblower, the heads of the presidential administration asked as early as the summer of 2008, after the war in South Ossetia, to have access to the home page interface in case of war.”

The same Lev Gershenzon, who resigned from the company a few years ago after working there for eight years, and is now a refugee in Germany, called on his former colleagues in March to stop “hiding evidence of war”. “He explained his resignation by transforming, even before the start of the conflict, Yandex News into a ‘propaganda machine'”, determined the expert.

The growing hand of the Kremlin

For Jeanne Cavelier, “Yandex is now in the hands of the Kremlin.” The head of the RSF Western and Central Europe desk recalled in particular that in April, Reporters Without Borders found, in the results generated by the Yandex News algorithm, a clone of The Insider, a Russian opposition investigative media based abroad. This clone broadcasts propaganda content with the image of the original site. “Since 2008, independent media no longer appear in the first search results and have great difficulty in making themselves visible on this platform,” added Jeanne Cavelier. Before completely disappearing since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

“This is not a break but a strengthening of censorship, added Kévin Limonier. There has been a real continuation for more than ten years of trying to control 100% of intermediation platforms such as search engines or social networks used by Russians”. The new, according to the expert, is direct acquisition. “From a partial manipulation of Yandex, which is widely known, we are moving to a total control of algorithms in a society that is completely under the influence of the Kremlin”.

Vk’s comeback

However, when Vk was created, a social network based on the Facebook model, it was hard to imagine that this model would be taken away. In 2006, the billionaire Pavel Dourov, who has since given birth to the controversial messaging service Telegram, founded VKontakte, which has since become Vk, “completely outside the orbit of power”, specified Kévin Limonier. “Before 2012, Russian authorities saw VKontakte as a playground for sneaker start-ups and geeks, rather than a strategic asset and a potential vector to destabilize the regime. “

But that year, demonstrations took place in the country against the return to power of Vladimir Putin, after several years as Prime Minister of Dmitry Medvedev. Like the Arab Spring, which was largely orchestrated through social networks, the mobilization began in part thanks to VKontakte, which allowed its organization. “Then Pavel Dourov refused to give the names of the leaders, published the letters of the FSB (ex-KGB) asking him to criticize the creators of the groups and events of the network. His refusal to cooperate led to his flight from Russia, to find the place of his social network, to his conviction that he does not exist, and finally to the confiscation of his VK shares,” explained the Russian-speaking cyberspace specialist.

Since then, Vk has moved to groups of Russian media magnates, these oligarchs who are very close to power. Alicher Ousmanov, in particular, owned and managed the social network before completely selling his stake in 2021. Now, at the time of the acquisition of Yandex News, Vk belongs to the group led by Vladimir Kirienko, son of Sergei Kirienko, member of the presidential administration and close to Vladimir Putin. “Digital authoritarianism has become the bread and butter of some Russian business families, who have gotten rich from the control of the Russian Internet authorities, which clearly generates money and is a real market” , says Kévin Limonier.

A glimmer of hope

But experts have not given up all hope of defeating this growing censorship. In the RSF, Jeanne Cavelier highlighted the fatigue of the people through official propaganda. “A study by the independent Romir Institute of Sociology shows a drop in viewership for the three main public television channels, Perviy Kanal, Rossiya 1 and NTV, of almost 25% in the last six moon”. And it is worth noting that television is the first medium of information in Russia.

Likewise, the country, which is often compared to China, is not on the same level when it comes to controlling the Internet. “The Russian network is one of the most complex muzzles and the Kremlin today does not have the technological means to do it, assures Kévin Limonier. The chaotic part – that’s the term that comes to mind – makes it possible to continue those who- an to circulate information and partly avoid filtering”.

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