Vladimir Putin’s media firewall goes up, but hackers find the cracks

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Those times are over now.

In recent days, Putin has dramatically tightened his grip on what Russians can see and hear in an attempt to seal them off from the outside world. The state communications authority Roskomnadzor has blocked Twitter and Facebook. The same applies to the BBC, the US government-funded service Voice of America and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. TikTok has suspended new posts in Russia and Netflix has stopped streaming in the country.

Dmitry Muratov, the editor of the Nobel Prize-winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has chosen to censor rather than ban coverage of the war in Ukraine. Credit:AP

The Echo of Moscow, one of the country’s last independent radio stations, shut down last week, as did popular web-based TV station TV Rain. The lower house of Russia’s parliament has approved a new law that would face jail time for anyone found in the Kremlin’s opinion to publish false information about the country’s invasion of Ukraine. newspaper Novaya Gazetawhich received the Nobel Peace Prize last year, has stopped reporting on the war in Ukraine and is opting for censorship rather than full closure.

“We watch helplessly as Russia’s independent media is silenced,” said Jeanne Cavelier, director of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

To access independent information, Russians are turning to virtual private networks (or VPNs), which trick their web browsers into thinking they are in another, less restrictive country. Google’s App Store in Russia has seen a massive spike in VPN downloads, with demand for some apps increasing by as much as 2700 percent week-on-week since the invasion began.

Meanwhile, the BBC has turned to the antiquated technology of shortwave radio to evade the web of censorship. This allows Russians with old-fashioned portable radios to listen to his world ministry for up to four hours a day.

A resident watches a live broadcast of Vladimir Putin, Russian President, as he delivers a speech on a television set in Moscow, Russia, Monday February 22, 2022.

A resident watches a live broadcast of Vladimir Putin, Russian President, as he delivers a speech on a television set in Moscow, Russia, Monday February 22, 2022. Credit:Bloomberg

Those who are not sufficiently motivated or technologically efficient must rely on information from Putin’s propaganda machine. Russian broadcasters are banned from using the term “invasion” to describe what’s going on in Ukraine, calling Russia’s intervention a “special operation” instead.

Meanwhile, Russian TV presenters refer to their Ukrainian opponents as “Nazis” and portray Russian troops as liberators.

Ilya Fomin, a postdoctoral fellow at Macquarie University who grew up in Russia before moving to Australia, said Russian media in recent days have claimed to have uncovered evidence of biological and nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“It makes little sense and is very hard to believe,” he says. But many Russians do.

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Fomin points to a generation gap: younger Russians are more tech-savvy and eager to seek out independent news sources, while older Russians rely on state television and are more accepting of the official line.

Christopher Paul, a senior social scientist at Rand Corporation, says: “The internal propaganda machine has been ramped up to 11, broadcasting narratives that may seem ridiculous to us in the West but work much better in Russia. [where the audience] been fed propaganda practically her entire life.”

Paul says Putin is deploying a “firefighter propaganda model of falsehood,” flooding the Zone with incoherent and contradictory explanations for what’s going on in Ukraine.

“When Russian propagandists find that an explanation doesn’t have the appeal they want, they’re happy to change the tune,” he says.

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