Do Russians Believe That Stuff?!

That’s the question many of us have been asking ourselves since the Russian propaganda attack on the Euromaidan began.

With the contested ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, the information confrontation, like the military situation, has intensified. The Russian press has simultaneously and repeatedly labeled the new Ukrainian authorities homosexuals, Islamic extremists, nationalists, Nazis, heretics, anarchists, and schismatics, supported by drunken, drug abusing Western mercenaries. This campaign seems heavy-handed and lacking in sophistication to an outsider, but does it work in Russia and Ukraine?

The most honest answer is, of course, we can’t be sure either way, but we do know the Russian press, especially television, which is the preferred source of information for most Russians, is mostly state-run or owned by Kremlin allies. The Internet is much more diverse, but TV is still the dominant, most trusted medium for most Russians (although the margin is slipping). So chances are that with such an information environment at least some of the stuff the press is throwing is sticking.

**UPDATE** The Internet became a little less diverse in mid March as Kremlin ally and owner of popular online news site Lenta.ru fired the site’s long serving editor over a link to an interview with a Ukrainian far right politician and replaced her with the editor of a pro-Kremlin website. The new leadership has since announced that they will decrease political coverage due to readers’ “lack of interest” and, instead focus on business and economic reporting. Russia used the infamous Black List law that to do what critics feared would happen–carry out political censorship, blocking opposition websites grani.ru, kasparov.ru, and ej.ru for carrying “banned content” (calls to participate in unsanctioned protests). Famous opposition anti-corruption crusader Aleksey Navalnyy’s blog was blocked for alleged violations of his two month house arrest.

“Information Confrontation” over Ukraine

Russia’s military doctrine includes a concept best translated as “information confrontation.” (Good quick write ups here and here.) While it addresses traditional ideas such as defense of infrastructure, the most interesting points cover the use of information by Russia as a tool to achieve geopolitical goals.

Perhaps we are seeing this policy playing out in the Russian press coverage of events in Ukraine. Top federal level newspapers and television stations are broadcasting interpretations of events that can only be described as misinformation and anti-Western propaganda in the best of paranoid Soviet tradition.  They are attempting to frame the revolution there as something provoked and paid for by the West (the US in particular) and warn of purges of Russians living in Ukraine as well as all traces of Russian culture and history and the rise of Nazi-type extremists.They are resorting to appeals to WWII historical themes to try to rally support for their version of events and paint the new Ukrainian authorities as Nazis.

Clearly these stories are primarily designed for internal consumption, but the West would do well to keep an eye on this information campaign because, as ridiculous as it is, it does inform a large portion of the Russian population’s beliefs about the West and, once formed, these views will be difficult to overcome. Perception is reality.

For “fun,” here’s a collection of the top crazy quotes I could find about the situation in Ukraine. In no particular order of craziness:

  • “Washington decided to call [US Ambassador to Russia] McFaul back because he was not able to start an Orange Revolution.” – Yevgeniy Fedorov, Duma deputy from United Russia party http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcM0GUcEJJc&feature Frankly this one is full of such great crazy quotes it’s hard to pick just one. Yevgenyy Fedorov is also a sponsor of a bill that seeks to have all Russian media outlets that receive 25% of their funding from abroad deemed “foreign agents.” He blames foreign-funded media in Ukraine for “provoking a civil war in the country.”
  • Look what you made me do! “Under pressure from the West, the president of Ukraine led the country to bloodshed and division.” And this: “But instead of additional financing from Europe, there appeared on the Ukrainian political scene a well organized force paid for by no one knows who — “the Right Sector.” Obviously the ideologues of regime change in Ukraine  found it cheaper to pay for the services of hired radicals than to negotiate with Yanukovich about new credit. In the midst of this, the West intentionally restrained the president of Ukraine from fulfilling his duty so that he would not be able to impose order in the country.” — Russia’s State-run newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Again, more crazy than you can fit in a blog post.
  • “Maybe the Americans are hiding Yanukovich”  “Yanukovich would certainly have continued fighting if he had not received sufficiently credible security guarantees or himself, his family, and his close circle. Who could give such guarantees in the current situation in Ukraine? Only Washington, which, as recent events in Kiev show, is also the ‘gray cardinal’ of the Maydan.” And “You can understand the Americans. They don’t need Yanukovich, but Ukraine. But Washington is clearly not interested in repeating the bloodly violence with Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi in a European government. In other words the State Department could give Yanukovich any guarantee of security as long as he disappeared from the Ukrainian political scene. And Americans are great masters at the disappearance of people.  Just the CIA’s flying prisions show that.” A different Rossiyskaya Gazeta article.  (Notably today’s papers are filled with rumors that Yanukovich is actually in Russia or at least on Russian territory.)
  • Dmitriy Kiselev, the host of Rossiya 1’s Sunday news program Vesti Nedeli and head of the new Russian news agency that joined RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia (Russia Segodnya), really takes the cake for crazy rants. According to Lenta.ru, he chalked up EU interest in events in Ukraine to a coalition of Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania  using Ukraine to start a war with Russia… to get revenge for their defeat at Poltava at the hands of Peter I in 1709. More of Kiselev’s explosions can be found in this Economist article.
  • Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of the most popular dailies in Russia, carried a story quoting a member of the Ukrainian parliament from Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions, Oleg Tsarev, saying: “The Americans want victims!” Too much crazy to translate.

Duma Passes Bill Expanding Kinds of Sites That Can be Blocked Without a Court Order

On 20 December the Russian Duma passed a controversial bill that would expand the kinds of sites that can be blocked without a court order to include those calling for riots, extremist activity, or participation in unsanctioned mass demonstrations. The bill passed through the Duma in record time, going through the entire process in just one week with only minor amendments that specified who was allowed to report suspected “extremist” sites and changing the wording of the time allotted for Roskomnadzor to notify the site operator from “a business day” to “24 hours”. Other serious issues with the law were not addressed. (See post from 18 December for discussion of outstanding issues with the law and its implementation.)

The law will go into effect in February 2014

 

Duma Fast Tracks Blacklist Expansion To Include Sites Calling for Unsanctioned Mass Demonstrations, Extremism, or Riots

The Russian Duma passed a bill in the first reading that would give the prosecutor general’s office the authority to order an Internet site to be blocked immediately without a court order if it finds calls to riot, conduct extremist activity, or participate in unsanctioned mass demonstrations.

This is a substantial expansion of the original Black List law. Not only does this law greatly increase the kinds of information that would be subject to blocking (in its final version, the original black list law only targeted sites that feature child pornography, the promotion of narcotics or psychotropic substances, or encouraging children to undertake actions that would threaten their lives or health), it worsens the blocking procedure. If this law gains final approval, access to any sites with such information would be blocked immediately and the site would have to delete the content and prove compliance in order to restore access.

During the hearing, some opposition members of the Russian Duma criticized the bill for its vagueness and what they said amounts to a tightening of the screws. Communist Party of Russia member Valentina Romanova voiced her concerns, asking who would be responsible for determining the extremist character of information on a given site. , Representatives of other government bodies and human rights organizations also took issue with the bill. The Russian Association of Electronic Communications opined that the bill was contradictory, saying that it failed to include specific criteria for what kind of information would be considered extremist, inciting interethnic discord, or even what is meant by “mass public events” and even stated that it was unconstitutional because only a court can determine what constitutes extremist information. Even the presidential committee on human rights called the bill “fraught with serious infringements to the Constitutional rights and freedoms of man and citizen.”

Moreover, as with the original blacklist law, there are concerns over the technical means of blocking sites. Blocking is usually carried out by IP address in Russia. Internet freedom activists and Internet companies worry that the use of IP addresses to block blacklisted sites could lead to extrajudicial censorship of the Internet. If, for example, a page from Wikipedia were found to have illegal content, all of Wikipedia could be blocked if its IP address was blocked. Furthermore, any site that shares an IP address with a blocked site would also be blocked. Instead, experts recommend blocking by URL, however this is more difficult and some of Russia’s Internet Service Providers, including some members of “the big four,” lack the technical ability to block specific URLs. Because of the variation in capabilities, blocking will either be incomplete or companies that lack the technical ability to block pages that feature the illegal information may have to resort to blocking a site’s IP address (See post Russia’s Efforts to Block Anti-Islam Video Showcase Issues with Its Black List Law)

Despite the criticism and technical difficulties, the bill is on the fast track to passing. It was introduced to the parliament on 16 December and passed the first reading on 17 December. During the first reading majority party United Russia accepted no criticism, reacting by mocking those who took issue with the bill. 

Update: Duma To Consider Bill To Broaden Kinds of Sites That Can Be Blocked Without Court Order

On 17 December the Russian Duma will hear a proposed bill that would expand the kinds of sites that can be blocked without a court order to include those that feature calls for mass disorder, carrying out extremist actions, igniting interethnic or interfaith discord, participation in terrorist acts, and participation in mass public actions conducted in violation of the law.

The Russian government has used the vague definition of “extremist” to target opposition parties and members in the past. Moreover, opposition calls for mass public demonstrations, which are often unsanctioned because this is one of the major ways the government seeks to prevent them, are one of the main ways in which opposition parties operate.

As previously mentioned (see post from 14 November), the bill would also make significant changes to the procedure for blocking such sites, allowing for immediate blocking as opposed to a days long procedure that allowed site owners time to remove the content before being blocked.

In anticipation of questions, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s Andrey Lugovoy (yes, that Lugovoy) stated that the organizations responsible for blocking sites would have no difficulty blocking not only sources located in Russia, but also those located abroad.  He admitted that Twitter and Facebook would be more difficult to censor but was optimistic that they, too, could be blocked.

This law was originally proposed by Lugovoy. He and Nikolay Ivanov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Sergey Chindyaskin of United Russia introduced the bill in the Duma. According to state-run newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the bill is intended to “perfect the mechanisms for protection of society from illegal information spread via information telecommunications networks (including the Internet).”

Proposed Law Could See More Kinds of Sites Blocked Without Court Order

Andrey Lugovoy, a Duma deputy from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (more famous as the accused murderer of Aleksandr Litvinenko), proposed a new draft law that would allow blocking websites featuring calls for mass disorder, terrorist or extremist acts, or participation in unsanctioned mass events without a court order. 

Under current law, websites can only be blocked with a court order except for those entered into the “Blacklist” of domain names and IP addresses of sites containing information that is forbidden by law in Russia. 

In the first draft, the Blacklist bill targeted sites that feature child pornography, the promotion of narcotics or psychotropic substances, or encouraging children to undertake actions that would threaten their lives or health. However, the bill also allowed for the inclusion of sites that contain “other” information that a court deemed illegal based on Russian federal law. The clause about “other information that a court deemed illegal” was also of major concern because of other Russian laws, such as the law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 June 2012 that made any form of promotion of unsanctioned demonstrations from handing out flyers to posting information in social media “illegal,” that could easily be interpreted to apply to sites activists use to coordinate demonstrations. The protests and public outcry led lawmakers to remove the “other” clause from the bill and it was passed in July 2012.

Lugovoy’s new draft law essentially seeks to add the “other” clause back into the blacklist law. Russian opposition parties and members have been accused of being extremist (some justifiably, some not). For example, Russian authorities shut down the website used by opposition protestors to coordinate the 20 March 2010 demonstrations in cities across Russia for containing extremist statements. According to Transitions Online, the Russian government has used its anti-extremism law “to shut down nearly 1,000 websites, ranging from actual extremist websites to websites critical of the government” as of April 2012. Another of type of information the draft bill would allow to be blocked – calls for mass public demonstrations, which are often unsanctioned – are one of the major ways in which opposition parties operate. These demonstrations have reached very high numbers in the last few years and government reaction to them has been harsh. This would just be one more way to try to prevent them.

Moreover, the procedure for blocking sites under Lugovoy’s draft bill is worse. Not only would no court order be necessary, the site would not be given time to comply before access was blocked. Under the existing blacklist law, a site’s owner has one day to delete the page with the illegal information and if he fails to do so, the page will be blocked. On the second offense, the entire site will be shut down. Under Lugovoy’s draft law, access would be blocked immediately and then the site would have to comply in order to restore access. According to the new draft bill, the prosecutor general and his assistants would notify Roskomnadzor of the offending information. Roskomnadzor would then ‘immediately” order the operator to block access to the illegal information or the entire site. Roskomnadzor would also be responsible for notifying the hosting provider to contact the site’s owner to require he delete the content. If the owner complies, Roskomnadzor would then allow the operator to restore access to it. This was a deliberate change from the blacklist bill, not a simple oversight. Lugovoy told business daily Kommersant “Society has to be protected, that is why it is necessary to block sites first and only afterwards allow their owners to prove that the blocking was unfounded in court.”  

According to business daily Kommersant, there is support for the initiative in the Parliament.

Duma Member Proposes Considering Government Control Over TV and Newspapers

The head of the Russian Duma committee on culture, director Stanislav Govorukhin, proposed rethinking the ban on government control over television channels and newspapers because, he asserted, the “majority of Russians are dissatisfied with the existing newspapers and television channels” and the job of the media is to educate the young generation.

Govorukhin does not plan to initiate such a bill in the Duma and admitted that such a move could be unpopular, but, he stated “tomorrow everything could change.”

The irony is the Russian government owns all six national television networks, two national radio networks, two of the 14 national newspapers, more than 60 percent of the roughly 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals, and two national news agencies. Many other media sources are owned by companies with close ties to the government. The extent to which they coordinate their programming with the government is unclear, but there have long been rumors about regular meetings between TV execs and government officials where talking points (and non-talking points) are distributed.