What’s the difference between Russia’s internet before and after the invasion of Ukraine? The answer: a thirtyfold increase in censorship.
That was the finding of a report published on Wednesday by Citizen Lab, a group from the University of Toronto that studies online censorship in authoritarian countries. The new report was one of the first attempts to quantify the extent of Russian internet censorship since the war began in February 2022.
To compile its findings, Citizen Lab analyzed more than 300 court orders from the Russian government against Vkontakte, one of the country’s largest social media sites, demanding that it remove accounts, posts, videos and other content. Before the war, Russia’s government issued internet takedown orders to Vkontakte, known as VK, once every 50 days on average. After the conflict began, that number jumped to nearly once a day, according to Citizen Lab.
Often the court orders focused on getting VK to remove news from independent media sites, as well as posts and accounts that expressed opposition to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin or the war. The government also used keyword blocking to censor lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer terms on the site, the report said.
“These findings suggest the extreme political sensitivity of the Ukraine war in Russia and in Russia’s need to tightly control Russians’ access to information regarding the invasion,” said Jeffrey Knockel, one of the report’s authors.
The limits on VK are a part of a wider effort by Russian authorities to use technology to shape public opinion and crack down on dissent. That campaign also includes a wider internet censorship system, a propaganda blitz and the deployment of digital surveillance tools to track people’s mobile phones and online activities.
Since the war began, Russia has also blocked access to some international sites, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. To get around the bans, many in Russia have taken to using virtual private networks, or VPNs, which are tools that circumvent those controls.
Despite Mr. Putin’s determination to limit what can be said online, Russia’s bureaucracy has not had great success in responding to real-time events. When Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, turned against the Kremlin last month, Russia’s censors blocked some content related to the mutiny — like Mr. Prigozhin’s name and that of the Wagner Group — but proved ineffective at stopping widespread discussion and even media articles about what had transpired.
Platforms like Telegram and YouTube remain available in Russia and are widely used sources of information.
In the report, Citizen Lab researchers also compared content on VK that was available in Canada, where the site is less restricted, against what was not viewable to internet users in Russia. Citizen Lab found evidence of personal accounts, videos and community groups blocked from Russian users, much of it related to the war.
Russia’s online content purges are small compared with those in other authoritarian countries such as China and Iran. Yet the techniques the countries use are similar.
The primary way Russian censors cut content on VK was by blocking community and personal accounts on the site. But Russian authorities also employed other techniques that are common in China, including measures to prevent users from searching for specific words on the site.