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Russia is restricting social media. Here's what we know

A woman makes a phone call in front of police officers blocking access to Red Square in central Moscow on March 2, 2022
Kirill Kudryavtsev
/
AFP via Getty Images
A woman makes a phone call in front of police officers blocking access to Red Square in central Moscow on March 2, 2022

Updated March 21, 2022 at 12:50 PM ET

The Kremlin is increasingly squeezing the free flow of information online for Russians as its war with Ukraine continues.

Russia has banned Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, for "extremist activities," while carving out an exception for the company's WhatsApp messaging service. Using Twitter is getting harder too. TikTok is no longer letting people in Russia upload new material after the country passed a law criminalizing so-called "false information" about the invasion.

Other popular apps, like YouTube and messaging app Telegram, are still available and widely used.

Meanwhile, many Russians are outfoxing the bans by turning to virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access blocked social media networks and news sites. VPNs are widely used to get around internet restrictions in places like China. Demand for VPNs in Russia was 2,692% higher on Mar 14 than it was in the week prior to the invasion, according to Top10VPN, a privacy monitoring service.

It's not easy to get a clear picture of what's going on with tech companies in Russia. The Kremlin's directives against online platforms can be vague or confusing and on-the-ground reports from Russia about how social media and other apps are working vary.

NPR compiled a rundown of what we know about the state of some leading social media and online services in Russia.

Facebook and Instagram

A Russian court banned Facebook and Instagram on March 21, ruling parent company Meta had committed "extremist activities" by temporarily allowing some posts that call for violence against Russian soldiers.

The social media platforms already had been blocked in Russia. WhatsApp, which is also owned by Meta, is not affected.

Meta's president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said the exception to its rules against violent speech applies only in Ukraine. "Our policies are focused on protecting people's rights to speech as an expression of self-defense in reaction to a military invasion of their country," he said in a statement posted on March 11 to Twitter.

The temporary change does not mean the company will allow "Russophobia or any kind of discrimination, harassment or violence towards Russians on our platform," he added. "We have no quarrel with the Russian people."

Yet the unusual departure from the company's rules prohibiting most overtly violent speech was met with outrage in Russia. The prosecutor general's office opened the criminal case against Meta, saying it was seeking the extremist designation because of what it termed "illegal calls for the murder of Russian nationals" by Meta employees. It also accused Instagram of serving as a platform for organizing "riots, accompanied by violence."

Roskomnadzor already had blocked Facebook after the tech giant heeded European requests in early March to ban Russian-backed media outlets in the EU and made state media posts harder to find in the rest of the world.

The regulator said those restrictions amounted to "discrimination."

Facebook and other platforms blocked RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik in Europe to comply with EU sanctions, and in other countries including Ukraine and the United Kingdom at the requests of their governments. The EU's ban also applies to traditional broadcast media organizations in Europe.

Facebook parent company Meta also slapped warning labels on posts with links to Russian state media stories and limiting their reach on Facebook and Instagram, which it also owns.

Twitter

After reports that Russia also fully cut off Twitter on Mar 4, Twitter officials said they could not confirm widespread disruptions beyond the service being throttled, which the company said began at the start of the invasion.

But on Mar 7, a Twitter spokesman confirmed that people in Russia are increasingly "having difficulty" using the platform in the country. Officials at Twitter said they were working to restore service in the country.

According to the Russian government's online registry, authorities have restricted access to Twitter under a federal law regulating calls for riots, extremism, protests and the spread of false information.

Twitter has banned RT and Sputnik in Europe in line with the EU sanctions. Like Facebook, it's also putting warning labels on and reducing the reach of tweets with links to Russian and Belarusian state media outlets.

TikTok

TikTok is preventing users in Russia from posting to the platform while it reviews the implications of a new Russian law that went into effect last week. Under the law, people face up to 15 years in prison for spreading information that contradicts the Kremlin's official narrative about Ukraine, which rejects words like "war" and "invasion".

People in Russia can still watch videos on the app and message each other, but cannot create their own TikTok videos. It is unclear when or if the company will resume letting Russians upload their own content.

The law has also led independent Russian outlets and some western news organizations to shut down or pull out of the country entirely, eliminating some of the few channels for information not controlled by Moscow.

TikTok said last week it had begun applying labels to some Russian state-controlled media accounts to warn people of videos produced by users with ties to the Kremlin.

In the European Union, TikTok has gone further by banning Russian state media accounts, like Sputnik and RT, in compliance with the bloc's sanctions.

Google and YouTube

On Mar 11, Google-owned YouTube said it was blocking Russian state media globally, after initially banning them in the EU and Ukraine. It also said it would remove videos about the Russian invasion that denies, minimizes or trivializes "well-documented violent events".

Google has also booted outlets from its Google News service, blocked them from its Google Play app store, suspended all advertising sales in Russia, and halted payments, including subscriptions, on YouTube and Google Play in Russia.

Russian authorities have demanded YouTube lift its restrictions, but have not so far announced they are blocking or throttling YouTube and other Google services in Russia.

YouTube is far more popular in Russia than Facebook, according to a poll last year from the independent Levada Center. It found 35% of people surveyed said they used YouTube, compared with 31% who used Instagram, 14% TikTok, 9% Facebook and 3% Twitter.

Telegram

Messaging app Telegram has long been popular in Russia and has thus far escaped the crackdown aimed at other tech companies.

That's despite the fact Telegram has been used extensively by Ukraine's government to broadcast President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's rallying cries and to disseminate videos of alleged Russian prisoners of war.

Founded by Russian-born Pavel Durov, the app promotes itself as a service free of restrictions and censorship and rarely removes content.

However, RT and Sputnik say their Telegram channels are being blocked in Europe, and Russian authorities have demanded Telegram take down videos and other information about Russian service members in Ukraine.

Netflix

On Mar 6, Netflix said it was suspending its streaming video service in Russia, citing "the circumstances on the ground." The company already said it wouldn't air Russian state TV channels in the country, despite a new law requiring it to do so. And it's halted production on all projects in Russia, including some already being filmed, according to Variety.

Twitch

Amazon's video streaming service Twitch has banned Russian state media outlets from its platform, Reuters reported, under a new rule prohibiting users who "persistently share misinformation on or off of" its platform.

The company has also notified streamers in Russia that it was cutting them off from payments to comply with sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other countries, the Washington Post reported. Many successful Twitch streamers earn money from fan donations, subscriptions and ads.

Editor's note: Facebook parent Meta pays NPR to license NPR content. Amazon and Netflix are among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.