Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Saint Petersburg on February 24, 2022

Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Saint Petersburg on February 24, 2022 Photo by Sergei MIKHAILICHENKO / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI MIKHAILICHENKO/AFP via Getty Images

Kremlin Cracks Down Harder on Media, Facebook as Protests Sweep Russia

Citizens “have a certain amount of capacity to express themselves, but it’s narrowing,” one observer says

The Russian government took steps Friday to further limit what its citizens can see in media and on the internet: “slowing” access to Facebook and ordering state and independent outlets to use only governmental sources in their reporting on Ukraine.

Russia will “partially restrict access in the form of slowing down traffic” to the social-media platform, Russia’s telecommunications agency said, in response to Facebook’s own “restricting” of four state-owned media sites: the Zvezda TV channel, the RIA Novosti news agency, and the Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru Internet sites.

Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs at Facebook’s parent company Meta, tweeted on Friday, “Yesterday, Russian authorities ordered us to stop the independent fact checking and labeling of contact posted on Facebook by Russian state-owned media organizations. We refused. As a result, they have announced they will be restricting the use of our services.”

The agency, Roskomnadzor, also told the country’s official and private-sector media outlets on Friday that ”they are obliged to use information and data received by them only from official Russian sources” when talking or writing about “a special operation in connection with the situation in the LPR and DPR”—that is, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Russian rulers have for centuries sought to restrict public knowledge and discussion, reaching a censorious peak under the Soviet Union that Vladimir Putin has sought to recapture. Last year, a Freedom House report said, “Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech, vague laws on extremism grant the authorities great discretion to crack down on any speech, organization, or activity that lacks official support.” The report added, “The government controls, directly or through state-owned companies and friendly business magnates, all of the national television networks and many radio and print outlets, as well as most of the media advertising market.”

Since 2017, the Kremlin has also worked to control what Russians can see on the internet, developing gear to silence websites, block content, and even shut off the country’s online connections to the rest of the world. Officials also use non-technical means. Last year, Russia  made 700,000 requests to Google items to restrict search results, according to Vasily Gastov, a ​​visiting fellow with the USC Annenberg Center. “At present, Google agrees with about one fifth of requests,” he said.

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The Ukraine invasion has been accompanied by other attempts to limit public discourse and understanding. Russian media has been inundating listeners, viewers, and readers with false messaging about the conflict and its origins. Even soldiers captured during the invasion have told interviewers that they believed they were taking part in exercises, said Olena Prokopenko, a non-resident fellow of the Co-chair of the Transatlantic Task Force on Ukraine and non-resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“If you watch interrogations of the captured Russian servicemen soldiers that are invading Ukraine right now, many of them, if not most of them…they say they have not been informed by their leadership why and where they're going,” Prokopenko said on a German Marshall Fund program.

A Russian veterans group called the Committee for Soldiers' Mothers echoed that claim on Friday, adding that Russian conscripts are writing home in shock at finding themselves on the frontlines—where Russian law says only volunteer troops are supposed to be.

Gastov said the move to restrict Facebook could backfire. When Russian news consumers have access to multiple points of view, they may be more likely to accept the government’s course of action even if they don’t like it, he said.

But when readers “try to get alternative information and there is none, they get worried,” he said. The move to block Facebook “will increase tensions and definitely will make people more disconnected with Putin’s own media.”

“It’s not that Russians have been completely brainwashed and are obedient to Putin’s narrative,” he said. Indeed, thousands of protestors have ignored the threat of detention and taken to the streets to protest the invasion.

“They have a certain amount of capacity to express themselves, but it’s narrowing. It’s getting smaller. Unfortunately, there is not much chance that it will be better,” Gastov said.