How the Kremlin Cracked Down on Online Promotion for The Protests

Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor last week cautioned social media platforms against encouraging minors to join the protests. “[We] will prosecute Internet sites for involving adolescents in illegal activities,” the watchdog said, adding that failure to remove “banned information”—posts encouraging people to join the protests — could result in fines of up to 4 million rubles ($53,000).

The warning came as social media was flooded with videos promoting the protests. TikTok videos using the hashtag “Free Navalny” (#свободунавальному) have brought in more than 120 million views. Russian TikTok users have recorded themselves packing their bags for Saturday’s protest. “I want to live in a free country, I’m not afraid to protest,” one user wrote. Others are seen taking down Putin’s portrait from the walls of their classrooms and replacing it with Navalny’s photo.

According to a report from Roskomnadzor, TikTok has deleted 38% of its content with videos about Saturday’s protest, while YouTube and Russian social media site VKontakte has removed half of their content calling on minors to join the rallies and Facebook-owned Instagram 17%.

The Russian Prosecutor’s Office warned that Internet traffic will be monitored to “restrict access to illegal information,” and that people found in breach “have been warned against breaking the law.” Police are “focused on taking preventive measures, and if there are grounds, bringing the perpetrators to administrative responsibility,” it said in a press release.

Russian police detained more than 3,000 anti-government protesters according to the OVD Info monitoring group, as tens of thousands nationwide responded to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call to denounce President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Tens of thousands of people, including teenagers, packed Moscow’s central Pushkin Square and nearby streets as riot police hauled off demonstrators and beat others with batons.

Among those detained were Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya and his prominent aide Lyubov Sobol. AFP journalists saw several protesters 

Navalny had called on Russians to protest after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with Novichok and returning to Moscow following months of treatment in Germany, only to be arrested on arrival.

Russian police have detained more than 3,700 people across the country according to OVD-Info, a Moscow-based NGO monitoring rallies, as anti-government protests surged in about 100 cities and towns on Saturday. 

Thousands of people took to the streets from Moscow to the Far East, battling the bitter cold, in some of the largest protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin in years. 

In Moscow, where Reuters estimated that 40,000 people turned up to protest in Moscow (the Ministry of Internal Affairs said it was about 4,000) riot police were seen beating and dragging protestors away.

Nationwide protests surged this weekend after the arrest of Russian opposition activist and fierce Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny last week. Ahead of the demonstrations, authorities had detained Navalny aides and restricted online information about the protests, which the Kremlin called illegal.

Navalny, head of Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, was immediately detained by Russian authorities when he returned to Moscow on Jan. 17 from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning that he and some Western governments blamed on the Kremlin. 

Moscow authorities warned last week unauthorized demonstrations will be “immediately suppressed.” Police began showing up at the homes of opposition figures, activists and journalists across Russia to warn them against participating in the rallies, and on Thursday they detained Navalny supporters, including his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh and a top investigator Georgy Alburov who assisted with the palace investigation, for inciting unauthorized protests.

The protests are a defining moment for the opposition as President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since 2000, increasingly seeks to silence the opposition. Although Navalny remains a polarizing figure in Russia—a September survey by the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow, found that 20% of Russians support Navalny’s work, while 50% disapprove—dissatisfaction against the Putin regime is growing. “[The protests] will speak more about the strength of the opposition against Putin, than Navalny’s popularity,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Moscow-based political consultancy firm, R. Politik.

The Roskomnadzor (literally the Russian internet police) is monitoring everyone that attends or talks about the protests and is arresting them en masse.

Polite police and disorderly demonstrators How Russian television networks and national news agencies reported Alexey Navalny’s January 31 opposition protests

Andrey Pertsev

On January 31, in the wake of a second round of nationwide protests demanding the release of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny, Russian state television networks and news agencies reported a “dramatic decline” in attendance at rallies and aired footage from demonstrations in cities that typically draw small crowds or failed to mobilize for Sunday’s events. “It’s fizzled out,” declared Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s most prominent TV propagandists. State networks and news agencies offered no explanation, however, for how such supposedly piddling turnout resulted in more than 5,600 arrests on Sunday — a single-day record for the opposition.

NTV

On the show “Itogi Nedeli” (Weekly Review), host Irada Zeinalova accused protest organizers of inciting people into the streets in an effort to “make public gatherings the new rule.” She stressed that the state authorities can’t allow such a thing, though “they are open to dialogue,” she said. Most of the broadcast featured footage of demonstrators clashing with police officers, followed by videos of some activists later apologizing for their actions.

“The number of people who want to join the protests has declined sharply. In Blagoveshchensk, there were only a pair of police cars, and there was just a one-person picket in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk,” Zeinalova told viewers, showing scenes from poorly attended rallies in Russia’s Far East. Meanwhile, NTV aired no footage from the bigger rallies in Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, and totally ignored Sunday’s massive protest in St. Petersburg. 

Turning to Moscow, Zeinalova’s program showed footage from Sukharevskaya Square at the very start of the demonstrations. Addressing the massive police presence in the capital on Sunday, the show told viewers: “In other locations, the police made sure that protesters didn’t block traffic.” There was no mention of officers using tear gas and tasers against demonstrators in St. Petersburg. NTV did, however, remind viewers about new felony charges against Alexey Navalny’s chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, for “recruiting minors for unlawful assemblies.”

Rossiya 1

“A nothing burger” — that’s how pundit Dmitry Kiselyov summed up Sunday’s protests, after describing the response from law enforcement a week earlier as “perfection.” After all, police had not resorted to water cannons, like in the Netherlands during demonstrations against pandemic lockdown restrictions, or rubber bullets, like in France against the “Yellow Vest” activists. 

Introducing his segment about the protests, Kiselyov spoke so dismissively that some viewers may have wondered why he bothered to discuss them at all: “The [January 31] rallies drew several times fewer people, totally fizzled out, the deception became obvious, and the authorities’ decisive actions were effective against offenders.” 

Kiselyov’s program declared the day’s demonstrations a “complete failure” and aired some of the same footage that appeared on NTV showing largely empty squares in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Blagoveshchensk, and Birobidzhan. There were also images of “courteous policemen” in Khabarovsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, showing how they informed small groups of protesters that their public assembly was unpermitted.

Instead of showing the large crowd that gathered in Novosibirsk, Rossiya 1 featured comments from a single enthusiastic anarchist. Then there was a segment about “apathy in Vyborg” — a report from a sleepy town outside St. Petersburg, miles from major protest activity. Turning to Yaroslavl, where a demonstrator was arrested with an ax, Rossiya 1’s narrator warned that some activists “came prepared.”

Unlike Irada Zeinalova on NTV, Dmitry Kiselyov did include some scenes from St. Petersburg, airing footage recorded outside Mariinsky Palace — one of Sunday’s rallying points for demonstrators. Just a few hundred people attended the protest, viewers were told, though the footage itself clearly showed several thousand people in attendance. Rossiya 1 even broadcast a video showing a police officer in St. Petersburg brandishing his pistol at a group of protesters, but Kiselyov’s correspondent explained the incident as the result of an attempt by several “aggressive demonstrators” to free detainees from police custody. 

The opposition was apparently in a festive spirit on Sunday, according to Kiselyov’s show. “It’s not immediately apparent that this is a protest; everyone is having fun and hooting and hollering,” says the narrator, though audible chants of “Russia without Putin!” and a demonstrator who says, “He stole my whole childhood” somewhat dampen this mood.

Viewers learned that some people during the protests attacked others and a few particularly “deranged” individuals deliberately frightened families passing by. Members of law enforcement, on the other hand, were courteous and careful. “The police looked after the detainees,” said an anchor narrating footage from the capital showing an officer retrieving a dropped pair of headphones for an arrested protester.

Judging by the footage from Moscow that Kiselyov chose to air on his show, it’s apparent that his editors chose images that make it hard to judge the crowd’s actual size, though it’s clear at certain moments during the segment that thousands of people attended the demonstrations. Ending the report from the capital, Rossiya 1 cites official estimates by the police that “no more than 2,000 people” protested in Moscow on Sunday, before repeating Kisleyov’s claim that “many times fewer” activists turned out than on January 23.

Pervyi Kanal

The evening news program “Vremya” recycled many of the same themes aired on NTV and Rossiya 1, including some identical footage (like the interview with the young anarchist in Novosibirsk). Pervyi Kanal also showed some scenes from the protest in Novosibirsk, selecting videos that depicted only scattered parts of the main crowd.

“The police [in Krasnoyarsk] arrested the offenders, but also tried to help them,” explained the show’s narrator, describing how officers escorted protesters into a police van “so they could warm up” and take refuge from the subzero temperatures outside.

Pervyi Kanal’s reporters said some protesters “openly provoked” members of law enforcement in St. Petersburg, but riot police “never wavered” and officers quickly arrested the “most active perpetrators.” The network didn’t mention any estimates about how many people demonstrated in the city.

Sunday evening’s Vremya broadcast also featured a young protester with a bandaged head in a segment suggesting that the activists who reported police abuse actually staged their injuries. “What liquid covers this person’s head is an open question,” says the show’s narrator, before an older woman appears on screen claiming that the young man “is lying” about being beaten by police officers.

The program concluded with the following summary of Sunday’s demonstration in Moscow: “The [opposition’s] supporters were fewer [than a week ago] and several minors were spotted among them.” The police officers who responded to the unpermitted rally, meanwhile, were “as courteous as possible.”

News agencies 

The state news agency RIA Novosti devoted the most attention to Sunday’s protests. In an op-ed, titled “Navalny Has Killed the Protest [Movement],” Irina Alksnis says, “Alexey Navalny and his organization are collapsing before our eyes, losing the last remnants of their reputation and social influence. Today’s events with their significantly reduced attendance (perhaps by an order of magnitude)….”

Much of RIA Novosti’s coverage of Moscow’s protests was devoted to the noble actions of police officers, with headlines like “Police in Moscow Help Man Who Becomes Ill in Stromynka District” and “Riot Police in Moscow Help Lift Wheelchair Up Ramp.” The news agency did report the use of tasers against demonstrators, but only as unconfirmed information that needed further verification. 

In its evening news summary, the state outlet TASS emphasized that Sunday’s nationwide protests drew fewer people than rallies a week earlier.

Interfax — a nonstate outlet that completes Russia’s trinity of major news outlets — didn’t claim outright that Sunday’s demonstrations attracted fewer protesters, but it did report the crowd size estimates released by the police.

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censor, responded to the demonstrations on January 31 more aggressively than it did a week earlier, warning news outlets and bloggers at the day’s outset that anyone responsible for “disseminating fakes about unpermitted rallies” could face fines as high as 4 million rubles ($52,600) and be blocked immediately. Officials explicitly cautioned Internet users and journalists against sharing “false information with inflated figures about the number of people joining illegal rallies, and about alleged violence and clashes or supposed deaths of demonstrators.”

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