“Dear followers, I hereby say goodbye to you. Click on the link to my Telegram channel. Follow me there, let’s not lose the connection with each other, now that we are completely isolated from the world”.
Instagrammend-Russia said goodbye to their followers this weekend in this way, or in a similar way. Today the platform went black. The wildly popular social medium – with more than 60 million Russian users between the ages of 25 and 35 – can no longer be used without a VPN connection, with which you redirect your internet traffic.
Russia previously blocked access to Facebook. Twitter was also restricted and TikTok can only be used within Russia with state-controlled content.
Meta as an extremist organization?
Instagram was blocked after an announcement from Instagram’s parent company Meta. It said last week that it would not tackle the online hate speech and death wishes of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The platform said “Russophobia” (discrimination against ordinary Russians). But that nuance did not arrive in Russia.
According to the Russian media watchdog Rozkomnadzor, Instagram contributes to the policy of spreading “calls to commit violent acts against Russian civilians, including military personnel”.
The media watchdog has asked the court to label Meta an ‘extremist organization’. With that, just having the Instagram or Facebook app on your phone has become ‘illegal’, even if you could still use it with a VPN connection.
‘Our soul, our whole life’
Instagram is hugely popular in Russia, especially among the generation of young Russians who have hung their entire social lives, businesses, and revenues on the platform. The biggest Russian influencers have tens of millions of followers.
Videos were shared this weekend of Russian Instagrammers grieving and crying, who not only see their entire source of income lost with the blockade, but also as they describe it: “our soul, our whole life. The reason why we go to bed in the morning. Hatch”.
This sparked a deluge of online criticism from the West: “She doesn’t care about the thousands of deaths in Ukraine, all she cares about is that she can’t get pictures of fancy food in restaurants can share more”. Or: “Open your eyes to what else is happening in the world right now”.
But with the blockade of Instagram and other social media in Russia, that is exactly what is becoming more and more difficult for Russians: seeing what is happening in the world, in Ukraine.
Because Instagram is not only an important medium in Russia for sharing selfies and dishes in restaurants, it is one of the few ‘windows’ to the West that were still open. While the media used to be heavily controlled, since the outbreak of the war there has been virtually total control over the flow of information reaching Russian citizens.
Independent journalism blocked
The West has imposed heavy sanctions on Russia in recent weeks, as well as blocking numerous Russian media and information channels over disinformation. This is used by Russia to ban all Western communication channels in its own country as a counter-reaction.
Media watchdog Roskomnazdor blocked all remaining independent journalistic media in Russia including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, CNN, Echo Moskvi, Dozhd and therefore virtually all social media.
In addition, the Russian parliament unanimously passed a law that would criminalize it with up to 15 years of hard labor in a penal colony for spreading ‘fake information’ about the war and the Russian army. Use of the word “war” or “invasion” is governed by that law; the Kremlin terminology dictated to Russians is “special military operation.” A separate law also prohibited expressing support for sanctions against Russia.
The law is specifically addressed not only to Russian citizens, but also to foreigners. An exodus of Russian and foreign journalists started almost immediately. CNN, The New York Times and Bloomberg, among others, withdrew their reporters. Almost all Russian journalists and a large part of all foreign correspondents are currently working from abroad. Sometimes it is walking on eggshells for journalists who have been left behind.
All this puts the ordinary Russian into media isolation. Absorbing Western information becomes virtually impossible and is potentially dangerous. Talking to foreign journalists is dangerous, and conversely it is becoming increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to protect their Russian sources or to obtain independent information from Russia.
‘Isolation harms Ukrainians and Russians’
Several activists warn that the desire to isolate Putin and protect the West from Russian disinformation now primarily affects ‘ordinary Russian’.
Roskomsvodoba, an organization that works for digital freedom in Russia, calls access to the internet and various resources “vital for Russians to make the right decisions”. In a statement, the organization wrote that “actions of this kind will not improve the situation in Ukraine, but will significantly worsen the human rights situation in the Russian Federation”.
According to the organization, the isolation “harms both the Russians and the Ukrainians themselves, as all Russian anti-war voices will no longer be heard and citizens will be deprived of reliable information about current events”.