Russians flock to domestic social media as Western sites are banned

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When YouTube blocked users in Russia from monetizing their clips after the invasion of Ukraine, George Kavanosyan, a Moscow-based environmentalist with 60,000 subscribers on the platform, tried to switch to its local equivalent, RuTube.

But as the Kremlin tightened control over online news, it grew increasingly frustrated with the video-sharing site, which is owned by the media division of Russian gas giant Gazprom.

“The first video I uploaded was moderated for two or three days,” Kavanosyan, 35, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that by the time it was approved, “its relevance was lost.”

Founded in 2006, RuTube is one of several Russian social media platforms that have seen a surge in users since Moscow escalated its long-running dispute with Big Tech in a bid to control the national narrative over its invasion. from Ukraine.

With Russian media dominated by state media that closely follows Kremlin lines, the web has traditionally provided a space for opposition voices and open discussion.

Russia accuses the West of spreading false information about the invasion, which it calls a ‘special operation’ to demilitarize Ukraine, and has restricted access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram since sending in its troops on the other side of the border.

YouTube could soon suffer the same fate as it comes under increasing pressure from Russia’s communications regulator.

Although there is no stated policy on replacing foreign social media, the government has promised tax breaks and preferential loans for local IT companies, and employees may have their military service deferred.

Politicians are also encouraging users to switch to domestic providers.

New sites, sad users

This has bolstered new and existing domestic rivals, which critics say are more flexible in complying with requests to remove content or help authorities with information.

“It’s really about the government trying to have more and more complete control over the information its citizens receive,” said Alina Polyakova, who heads the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a group of Washington-based think tank.

RuTube was downloaded approximately 1.4 million times on the Russian App Store and Google Play in the 40 days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, up more than 2,000% from the previous period, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

VKontakte, a Facebook-like site that already dominated the Russian market, saw a 14% increase in active users in March, with social networks Telegram and OK also seeing growth of 23% and 6% respectively, according to the Brand Analytics monitor.

The Instagram Fiesta alternative hit #1 on the Russian App Store at the end of March and the newest entrant into the space is Rossgram, another Instagram clone.

A black-and-white parody alternative called Grustnogram, which translates to Sadgram, has also gone live in recent weeks, inviting users to post sad photos of themselves to express their grief over the loss of the platform. American.

After China

Russia is not alone in trying to foster a national internet ecosystem.

Countries like China and India have built surrogate apps and social media platforms that are more easily controlled by the government.

In China, the banning of Google and Facebook helped propel WeChat to the top digital platform in the country.

With the so-called Great Firewall blocking many Western platforms, local sites such as search engine Baidu and Weibo, similar to Twitter, have established their dominance, although critics point out they are closely watched and heavily censored.

In India, after failing to control the content posted on Twitter, the government actively promoted an alternative called Koo, which says it now has more than twice as many users as its US competitor in the country.

Short video app Josh, launched just days after the government banned Chinese TikTok in 2020, claims to have over 150 million users.

Social unrest

Still, analysts say it may take time for Russia to catch up with China in terms of fostering a local social media ecosystem, as some of its domestic platforms are far from becoming viable alternatives to their counterparts. established.

Rossgram’s launch has been hampered by delays, and RuTube’s reach in Russia is still a fraction of YouTube’s, according to figures announced by the Russian company’s CEO and market research groups.

RuTube said it was working to protect users from “counterfeiting” and “misinformation”, adding that moderation processes were taking longer than usual due to the increased load on the site. and stricter legal requirements for “reliability of information”.

Rossgram did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wary of censorship, surveillance and the potential consequences of speaking their minds, some content creators avoid national sites.

“I don’t see any interest in the newly created Russian-language services. I’m unlikely to be able to speak freely on them,” said Alexander Kim, a 40-year-old YouTuber and human rights activist.

Mikhail Klimarev, director of the Internet Protection Society, a Russian digital rights group, said users fear that what is acceptable to authorities today may become illegal tomorrow, leading to platforms filled with poor content. .

“It takes courage to produce quality content that attracts users. And users also need courage to provide feedback to content creators,” he said.

“Likes and comments…it’s just dangerous,” he added.

Russian platforms could also face logistical challenges as sanctions hamper their ability to import hardware such as servers to support their growth, he added.

“Propaganda Abyss”

Meanwhile, many Russians have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue accessing banned sites, despite Moscow’s attempts to block service providers.

Yet accessing independent and dissenting voices has become increasingly difficult.

Some measures taken by Western tech companies in response to the war, such as stopping monetization on YouTube, have been counterproductive, punishing both pro-Kremlin and independent content generators, the creator says of Kavanosyan videos.

YouTube stopped monetizing videos for users in Russia in March as global outrage over the Ukraine conflict escalated and Western sanctions began to cause banking problems in Russia.

“The monetization block has hit many independent newsrooms, journalists and bloggers, and made it almost impossible to create new journalistic or media projects,” Kavanosyan said.

Klimarev, of the Russian digital rights group, also urged tech giants such as Google and Apple to introduce technologies to Russia that encrypt internet traffic and thwart attempts to block content.

“Shutting down and blocking the internet is Putin’s weapon,” he said.

“When you turn off the internet for ordinary users, you drag them into Putin’s propaganda abyss,” he added.

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