As the Russian military has pushed outward into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin has stepped up its fight on a second front: against its internal opponents and the media they use to organize and spread information. The few voices of Russia’s independent press have fallen one by one in recent months: imprisoned, fired, or intimidated into self-censorship. On Monday, the founder of Russia’s largest social media company, Pavel Durov, announced that he had been fired and replaced by Putin loyalists.
At this rate, if Putin’s crackdown on independent expression succeeds, there may be nothing left for the country’s massive surveillance network to spy on.
Edward Snowden addressed the question in a recent op-ed where he wrote about "social media companies reporting that they have received bulk collection requests from the Russian government." Now the question may be moot as the Russian government is a step closer to being able to spy on social media users directly without bothering to make requests."
Durov’s company, VKontakte—known as VK—is the second-largest social media company in Europe. In Russia and the former Soviet states, VK has over 100 million users. Durov expressed some surprise about the manner in which he was fired, learning from news reports that company’s board of directors terminated him for a procedural violation, but he seemed to know that the news would come eventually.
“Probably, in the Russian context, something like this was inevitable, but I’m happy we lasted seven and a half years,” Durov wrote in a statement about his firing.
“Obviously Durov’s decision to remain outside Russia means he knows what will happen to him if he returns,” an expert on social media in Russia told The Daily Beast.
Just over a month ago, the Kremlin launched a salvo against the media, the Russian government replaced the editor of a well-known independent newspaper and shut down the sites of some of the country’s leading bloggers. A message from Russia’s Prosecutor General appeared on the down sites stating that they had been banned for “incitement to illegal activity and participation in public events held in violation of the established order.”
But in a sense, this is a move that’s been years in the making. Ever since Moscow’s social media-powered protests of 2011, the Kremlin has been looking for ways to muzzle the networks. At the time, Russia’s Federal Security Service demanded VK remove some pages critical of the government—a demand the network resisted. Kremlin television began airing documentaries blaming sites like VK for all manner of societal ills. Kremlin-connected cybersecurity entrepreneur Eugene Kaspersky even faulted the network for contributing to his son’s kidnapping.
“At this rate, if Putin’s crackdown on independent expression succeeds, there may be nothing left for the country’s massive surveillance network to spy on.”
“Social networks, it’s too much freedom so people can manipulate others with the fake information,” Kaspersky told WIRED the following year. “And it’s not possible to find who they are. They are anonymous from somewhere. And that’s why I see the social networks as one of the most dangerous—I don’t know what to call it—threats. But it’s a place for very dangerous action.
The targeting of VKontakte comes as the Duma, Russia’s parliament, prepares to pass a bill requiring bloggers to register with the state.
The Duma bill, which forces bloggers that get more than 3,000 visitors a day and use commercial advertising to register as media outlets, would give the government a legal cover to shut down almost any site it objected to.
According to the Russian social media expert, “A Facebook page visited by more than 3,000 people today will have to register as media. It opens the Pandora’s Box. No one will be sure if something they publish becomes popular enough that they need a license. Then, if the license is taken away you have to shut down you website.”
With the establishment press in Russia already largely purged of anti-government voices, the state has turned its attention to the threat from social media. But with Durov gone, it’s the individual users of social Media who now seem to be under suspicion and threat from the government.
The attack on social media reveals the Kremlin’s fear of its own vulnerability to internal dissent. But the move also represents a growing sophistication in its approach to silencing critics. Only a few years ago, Russian journalists were being openly beaten and killed. The threat of that kind of violence still exists, but it has become more infrequent as the state has grown adept at using regulatory pressures and the threat of violence to accomplish its aims.
“Social media became another place where people can express their opinions and that’s not allowed. That’s not acceptable,” the Russian expert said.
Asked about where ordinary Russians would turn to express their views if they no longer believed they could safely use social media he said, “the Russians are very creative, I’m sure they will come out with something new.”
He also questioned whether the campaign against media signaled the government’s increasing strength or was a sign of its vulnerability. “These efforts actually don’t serve the goal of the government,” he said. “They actually stimulate alternative thinking and the development of new outlets.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional information.