Russia has long been one of the world’s strongest proponents of online censorship. Under the regime of Vladimir Putin, the country has lurched back towards its Soviet totalitarian roots, and nowhere is this more true than the media.
The level of state control over Russia’s media is almost absolute, with dissenting publications being shut-down and opposition journalists being threatened, arrested, and in several cases assassinated.
Of course, the media now is a very different beast to the one controlled by the Soviet regime, and controlling online media, in particular, is a big challenge. While it is possible to censor and control online content within a country up to a point, persuading your citizens that you are right to do so is much harder.
Online Censorship ‘necessary’
So, it is a testament to the effectiveness of the propaganda machinery within Putin’s Kremlin, that a recent survey indicated that 60% of Russians believe online censorship is necessary.
The survey was carried out by the Levada Centre [in Russian], which is an independent Russian polling company. Between 21st and 24th October this year they asked a cross-section of Russian citizens a series of questions about media and online censorship, with some interesting results.
When asked whether it was necessary to block some websites and online content, 60% said it was, while just 25% said it wasn’t. They also expressed a scepticism about the value of online news, with 51% of respondents saying that the internet would never be able to replace radio, TV, and newspapers as sources of news.
The same survey suggested a broad trust for the news given on state news channels, with 56% mostly trusting it, while 49% of people thought that the media was only misleading them ‘rarely’.
For those of us outside Russia who have a clear view of the level of state control and propaganda used by the Russian regime, these figures may come as a shock. But they are nothing new.
Previous polls by the Levada Centre have indicated similar findings and a May 2014 study by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) [in Russian] found 59% of people thought gay porn sites should be censored, 46% agreed with the censorship of social media sites that are used to organise anti-Government demonstrations, and 45% thought video’s by the pop group Pussy Riot, who famously oppose Putin, should be blocked.
The reasons why these figures have been so constant is open to debate. There is a lot of unconditional support for Putin and his nationalist messaging, especially after the rather chaotic early days of democracy under Boris Yeltsin.
There is also a climate of fear in Russia where even in a survey like this, some people may not want to be heard giving the ‘wrong answers’. And as we have noted, state propaganda is widespread, and this messaging has been beamed into people’s homes for years.
But whatever the reasons, it seems increasingly likely that the Government is now taking steps to fulfill the apparent will of the people.
We have reported before on recent Russian legislation which clamped down on encryption and Russian data being removed from the country. This has led to the recent blocking of LinkedIn, with other popular sites thought to be next in line.
In addition to this, a Russian businessman, with close ties to the Kremlin, and who runs a pro-internet censorship campaign group, recently visited China [£] and met with the people behind their infamous Great Firewall.
In short, things don’t look great for online freedom in Russia, either at present or looking ahead. Of course, plenty of Russians are still using VPNs to access LinkedIn and other blocked content, and for the time being at least, they will continue to do so.
But Putin is a leader used to complete control, and it looks increasingly like there are plans afoot to take hold of the internet in the same way as he has the conventional media in Russia. And as this poll shows, he will have public support to do so as well.