Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko have tried and failed to prevent their citizens from accessing the outside world through social media platforms like Facebook and Telegram for years. Today, as Putin leverages his influence over Lukashenko in support of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some Western companies and media organizations are unwittingly helping to silence those speaking out in opposition. Here are four ways to protect anti-war voices in Russia and Belarus.
1. Don’t splinter the internet to fight Putin’s propaganda.
Part of Putin’s strategy is sowing propaganda and disinformation to justify Russia’s illegal war. In the first few weeks of the invasion, some Ukrainian government officials and friendly states called for blocking major online communications platforms, like Apple, Facebook, or Google, or even cutting off service for Russia’s top level domains. Some companies have also chosen to disconnect Russia and Belarus on their own accord.
This might seem like a logical approach: block the propaganda at the source. But as we and our civil society partners explain in our open letter to U.S. President Biden, that’s only doing Putin’s job for him. Disconnecting Russia or Belarus from the internet will not help Ukraine to resist the invasion. It will only help Putin disconnect people from one another and create an information vacuum to be filled with propaganda.
That’s why it is good to see companies and organizations like ICANN, Cloudflare, and domain and website certificates providers like Namecheap refuse to cut Russia off from the internet or make exceptions to Russian and Belarusian civil society actors who do not support the war.
UPDATE: PROGRESS! @Namecheap restored service & apologized to @Tep_st. Heartening!
No word yet from @SlackHQ & @Mailchimp
As it turns out, another tech company is now a problem… /1 🧵 https://t.co/eqGLnuoBm4
— Natalia Krapiva 👩🏻💻🕊 (@natynettle) March 19, 2022
2. Don’t create a “truth vacuum.”
On March 3, the State Communications Service of Ukraine called on citizens to share on social networks the evidence of atrocities, crimes, and consequences of this war, especially with “Russians who have limited access to truthful information.” President Zelensky himself has called on Russian people to share the truth about Ukraine. But what happens when these networks are blocked in Russia or Belarus?
Putin and Lukashenko have long worked systematically to silence any voice that counters the party line, creating a truth vacuum to fill with their lies and government-approved narratives. Russia’s Sovereign Internet Law project represents an attempt to force-feed an entire population a steady diet of pure propaganda. This is the information environment that helped “legitimize” the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored war in East Ukraine for the past eight years.
Now Putin is going even further. Russian censors have already blocked social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as independent news channels like Dozhd, DOXA, and Meduza. After the news organization Reuters published an article with the inaccurate headline, “EXCLUSIVE — Facebook and Instagram to temporarily allow calls for violence against Russians,” a Russian court banned use of these platforms, declaring that Meta, Facebook’s parent company, is involved in “extremist activities.” Meanwhile, responding to a new “fake news” law in Russia, TikTok announced that it will cease live streaming to assess the situation.
Despite this shrinking digital space, Belarusian and Russian activists are trying to support Ukrainians in their fight for freedom by creating apps that help Ukrainian refugees with housing and monitoring the movements of Russian and Belarusian troops within Belarus to warn Ukrainian residents in advance about the upcoming attacks.
Needless to say, in this purge of alternative sources of information, the international community should be focused on preserving the last channels to access the truth, not eradicating them. That means media organizations should be alert to the danger of making social media platforms targets for censorship. It also means we must oppose calls on Apple and Google to block their app stores in Russia. After all, we saw what happened after these companies were bullied into removing opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting app from their stores: Putin maintained power.
3. Support anti-war voices and movements — and protect their privacy.
Anti-war voices can be incredibly powerful. When Ukrainian President Zelensky’s asked Russians and Belarusians to oppose Putin’s invasion, many acknowledged they had never heard any government official speak to them with such compassion. Thousands of Belarusians and Russians took to the streets to protest the war — despite the threat of arrest without due process, torture, and further persecution.
More recently, a heartfelt message from international celebrity and former California governor Arnold Swarzenegger brought some Russians to tears.
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Russians and Belarusians need to hear these voices. Those organizing in opposition to the war also need privacy to stay safe. Critics of Putin and Lukashenko have faced arrest, torture, forced disappearances, and assassinations. Yet DigiCert is stopping issuance of website certificates affiliated with Russia and Belarus. That will only make it easier for the government to spy on people and replace independent websites with propaganda. We hope that other companies that provide privacy and circumvention tools will not follow their lead.
4. Don’t forget Crimea and occupied territories.
In any call to disconnect Russia from the internet, we also risk further isolating occupied and annexed territories from the rest of the world. With Russia increasingly controlling internet and telecommunications infrastructure in those areas, our partner human rights groups working on Crimea have been raising alarms about the risks of those communities left with only Russia’s Sovereign Internet, which can be turned on and off whenever Russian authorities want to, making resistance more difficult. That’s a credible fear, considering how Russian and Belarusian regimes have used internet shutdowns to suppress protests.
The bottom line
Despots rule by isolating and lying to their people, and hiding the truth. We must not help them. We must actively fight them.
That means we— civil society, governments, tech companies, everyday people — must do everything we can to ensure that people in Russia and Belarus can learn the truth about what is happening. Putin and his allies will pay a heavy price for this invasion. Perhaps the heaviest will be scales falling from the eyes of their citizens.