Volunteers wearing face masks, gloves and protective gear to protect against coronavirus in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 6, 2020.

Volunteers wearing face masks, gloves and protective gear to protect against coronavirus in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 6, 2020. AP / Alexander Zemlianichenko

How the Kremlin Targets Lies, and Truths, about Russia’s COVID Response

Chief prosecutor sheds light on Moscow’s recent efforts to control the messages that Russians receive about the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia’s top prosecutor has ordered Russia’s internet- and media-regulation agency to block online access to “inaccurate socially significant information” about the pandemic, according to a June 8 statement from the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation.

This sheds light on earlier reports that the agency, known as Roskomnadzor, had been ordering platforms — including domestic news sites and Western giants such as Facebook and YouTube — to take down “false information” about the coronavirus. Roskomnadzor has the legal authority to technically block access to online content if platforms don’t comply with the Kremlin’s censorship orders.

Between Jan. 1 and June 4, the Prosecutor General’s office issued 180 of these content-blocking orders, including 120 pertaining to “socially significant information” about the coronavirus, the statement said.

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That’s up from 134 in all of 2019, the statement said. (Those included 12 aimed at “fakes.”)  

The increasing pace shows a notable rise in the Kremlin’s reliance on internet censorship during the pandemic.

The statement said that the orders to Roskomnadzor generally concerned claims of various types:

  • • Coronavirus is a myth. (Obviously false.)
  • • The state or medical authorities are concealing infections and casualties. (Such coverups that are, in fact, occurring.)
  • • Troops are being sent to cities to restrict citizens’ rights or stage a coup. (No coup has occurred. Putin did discuss and has used the military to help contain the coronavirus.)
  • • Some individuals or entities (the statement’s reference is vague) are spreading false information about the pandemic to address geopolitical and economic problems. (The Kremlin has spread disinformation about COVID-19 around the world to do just that.)

The Prosecutor General’s statement, which arrived as national-level government announcements around content takedowns had slowed come mid-April, reveals the multifaceted nature of the state’s content removals and censorship during COVID-19: taking aim at actual lies, as well as legitimate criticisms of the state and its pandemic response.

It raises important questions about the content the Prosecutor General ordered blocked, given that Moscow had previously ordered some U.S. social media and internet platforms to remove content it deemed “false.” Much American attention has been rightfully paid to U.S. companies’ content policies on COVID-19. Yet this kind of statement — following Roskomnadzor’s previous statements that some U.S. platforms have complied with takedown requests — is a reason why it’s also worth scrutinizing how and when U.S. social media companies are acquiescing to foreign censorship.

The statement should also remind us — and particularly those who harbor illusions about the Kremlin — of its stance on information freedom. As the Russian government struggles to deal with the pandemic, it is fighting to maintain its narratives even when they contradict the facts.