WHEN THE Soviet people turned on their television sets on August 19th 1991, they knew there was an emergency. Every channel was playing classical music or showing “Swan Lake” on a loop. A few hours earlier Mikhail Gorbachev had been detained during an attempted coup. As the Soviet Union crumbled, the fiercest street battles unfolded over television towers. “To take the Kremlin, you must take television,” said one of Mr Gorbachev’s aides.
Vladimir Putin took note. He began his rule in 2000 by establishing a monopoly over television, the country’s main source of news. It has helped him create an illusion of stability—and whip up enthusiasm for his foreign wars. But the Kremlin’s most reliable propaganda tool is losing its power. Russian pundits have long described politics as a battle between the television and the refrigerator (that is, between propaganda and economics). Now, the internet is weighing in.
According to the Levada Centre, an independent pollster, Russians’ trust in television has fallen by 30 percentage points since 2009, to below 50%. The number of people who trust internet-based information sources has tripled to nearly a quarter of the population. Older people still get most of their news from television, but most of those aged 18-24 rely on the internet, which remains relatively free.
YouTube in particular is eroding the state-television monopoly. It is now viewed by 82% of the Russian population aged 18-44. Channel One, Russia’s main television channel, reaches 83% of the same age group. Vloggers have overtaken some television anchors. Yuri Dud, a YouTube journalist who interviews politicians and celebrities such as Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, gets 10m-20m views per video, much more than any television news programme. Even Dmitry Kiselev, the state television propagandist-in-chief, felt compelled to appear on Mr Dud’s show.
News is the fourth-most-popular YouTube category among Russians, after “do it yourself”, music and drama. Mr Navalny, who has become a dominant political voice on the internet, has two YouTube channels, one of which has daily news programmes. In the past year his audience has doubled. He has 2.5m subscribers and 4.5m unique viewers a month. His weekly YouTube webcast is watched live by nearly 1m people. By comparison, Channel One’s main evening news show is watched by 3m-4m people.
The Kremlin is desperately looking for ways to control the internet. “The government is trying to work out how to turn the internet into a television,” says Gregory Asmolov, an expert on the Russian internet at King’s College London. This, he argues, would require not only strict regulation, but control over physical infrastructure and dominance in providing content.
Last month the Duma preliminarily approved a law on “digital sovereignty” which tries to separate Russia’s internet from the global one. It wants to criminalise anti-government messages online, in effect reviving laws on “anti-Soviet propaganda”.
Yet controlling the internet will take more than a few laws. Unlike in China, where the ruling party built its “Great Firewall” by the early 2000s, in Russia the internet was a free zone both in terms of content and infrastructure, with hundreds of private service providers. In the early 2000s it became an alternative to state-dominated television. The Kremlin did not spot the threat. Indeed, Mr Putin argued against regulating the internet.
Faithful servers of the Tsar
By the end of the 2000s, however, online activity spilled into the real world. During a rash of wildfires in 2010, thousands of volunteers used crowdsourcing sites to respond to the crisis. Mr Asmolov argues that this self-mobilisation instilled a sense of agency in ordinary citizens while exposing the government’s shortcomings.
A year later, when the Kremlin tried to rig parliamentary elections, sites such as Golos (“Voice”) activated thousands of volunteer election monitors who recorded widespread violations. In the wake of street protests, Mr Putin unleashed repression both online and offline, including denial-of-service attacks on websites, new regulations and prosecution of activists. In 2014 he declared the internet a CIA project and demanded that national internet firms move their servers to Russia. The Kremlin launched groups of “cyber guards” to search for prohibited content, and tried to hollow out the volunteer movement by replicating independent crowdsourcing sites with its own. It even equipped polling stations with webcams, not to increase transparency, says Mr Asmolov, but to create a semblance of it. It also deployed an army of trolls to flood social media with derisive and inflammatory messages.
The government pressed Pavel Durov, the co-founder of VKontakte, a home-grown social network, to divulge user information to the FSB, the state security service. When he refused, it made him sell the firm to Alisher Usmanov, a loyal oligarch who owns Mail.ru, a big Russian internet business. VKontakte remains Russia’s top social network, partly because it offers pornography and pirated content. Last year Mr Usmanov signed a $2bn joint venture with Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant.
Unlike Mr Durov, Mr Usmanov had no qualms about giving users’ data to the security services, which has led to a series of arrests. According to Agora, a human-rights watchdog, Russian prosecutors have initiated 1,295 criminal proceedings for online offences and handed out 143 sentences since 2015. The vast majority originated from VKontakte pages.
This heavy-handed approach has alienated young internet users. More recently, the government has changed tactics. Instead of persecuting users, it is establishing greater control over internet providers. New legislation on “digital sovereignty” will oblige them to install surveillance equipment that can be operated from a single control centre. This will allow the state to filter internet traffic, isolate regions or even cut off the worldwide web throughout the country in case of emergency. The government showed it can cordon off individual regions from the internet during recent protests in Ingushetia.
But replicating China’s “great firewall” may be difficult, says Andrei Soldatov, the author of “The Red Web” and an expert on Russian internet surveillance. Russia is more integrated into the internet’s global architecture; its biggest firms, like Yandex, have servers abroad, while global giants such as Google have servers in Russia. More importantly, Russians have grown used to sites like YouTube, which is a big provider of children’s entertainment.
Banning established platforms like YouTube or Google may be technically possible, but could be politically explosive. Last year the state regulator tried to block Telegram, a messaging service developed by Mr Durov, for refusing the Russian security services access to encrypted messages. This inadvertently crashed lots of services, including hotel- and airline-booking systems which (like Telegram) relied on Amazon and Google servers. It also sparked some of the largest street protests in years.
Telegram is fighting the effort to block it, and for now it seems to be winning, not least because many government officials use it. But Mr Soldatov argues that the exercise served to intimidate big platforms into co-operating: “It showed firms such as Google and Facebook that people in the Kremlin…are mad enough to bring down the entire internet if necessary.”
Last year the Russian regulator fined Google 500,000 roubles ($7,600) for failing to remove banned websites from search results. The number of requests from the Russian government to remove or block content has exploded in the past two years. The repressive “digital sovereignty” law, already endorsed by Yandex and Mail.ru, two of Russia’s largest firms, aims to increase the Kremlin’s power to cajole. And the tactic of “persuasion” is partially working. Google’s latest transparency report shows that it satisfied 78% of Russian government take-down requests in the first half of 2018. Mr Navalny complains that YouTube wrongly removed a paid advertisement for his protest rally last September at the request of the electoral commission, and says it turns a blind eye to the Kremlin’s use of bots to drive down his videos’ ratings and stop them from trending.
Applying the new law fully, however, might be like smashing a computer screen with a hammer. The Kremlin will have a switch to bring down the internet if a political crisis erupts, but few ways to prevent it from erupting. Pulling the plug to block the protesters’ message from spreading would be the most powerful message of all. In 1991 almost no one had internet access. But everyone knew the country was in turmoil when they turned on the television and saw nothing but “Swan Lake”.