Russia ramps up censorship on VKontakte since invading Ukraine

Russian authorities have been censoring the country’s biggest social network, VKontakte (VK), on a much larger scale since it attacked Ukraine in 2022, a new report shows.

There were 30 times more censorship requests sent to VK, Russia’s homegrown Facebook copy and its biggest social network, from Russia’s government officials during the eight-month period following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the author of the findings, says they are some of the clearest examples so far illustrating Russia’s efforts to use the war on Ukraine for justifying ever-increasing clampdowns on online political dissent.

The report found that Russia had the most limited access to VK social media content, due to the blocking of 94,942 videos, 1,569 community accounts, and 787 personal accounts in the country.

The Citizen Lab examined the accessibility of certain types of content on VK in three countries – Canada, Ukraine, and Russia. The differences are clear.

In Canada, VK predominantly blocked access to music videos and other entertainment content – this was most probably related to copyright infringements. In Ukraine, no content that VK blocked was found, even though this is a weird statement as the site itself is blocked in the country.

However, VK’s actions in Russia mostly equal censorship because the site blocked content posted by independent news organizations, as well as content related to Ukrainian and Belarusian issues, protests, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) content.

In Russia, certain types of video content were inaccessible on VK due to the blocking of the accounts of the people or communities who posted them. These individuals and groups were often targeted for their criticism of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin or of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Additionally, accounts belonging to these communities and people have been restricted from VK search results in Russia using broad, keyword-based blocking of LGBTIQ terms.

What’s interesting is that the authorities felt they needed to censor more content after the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Prior to military action, Russian authorities submitted court orders to VK on average around once every 50 days but that skyrocketed up to once a day following the invasion.

The largest portion of the videos removed by court order, according to a sample reviewed by Citizen Lab researchers, involved depictions of the war in Ukraine. Those blocked videos included war footage, depictions of ordinances, and even talk shows discussing the conflict.

“Overall, the timing of these changes suggests that the ongoing conflict has dramatically increased the rate of blocking of video content for Russian users,” says the report.

Of course, Russia censors content online – this is not even news. Moscow even launched a new AI-driven tool to monitor banned information. But the Citizen Lab report details how the government’s pressure on social media companies is different – unlike web pages that can simply be banned or blocked, removing content on VK requires a court order.

On the other hand, since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 Russia has already blocked access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and Moscow even called Meta an “extremist organization.”

VK is still operating – mostly because it’s still very popular in the country. It’s crucial, though, that the site’s founder Pavel Durov is no longer in charge – in fact, he has claimed that VK was “under complete control” of state actors close to the Kremlin.

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