This past week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress about how Cambridge Analytica accessed user data. The hearings also touched on advertising, privacy and false content. Zuckerberg was asked about what role Facebook played in the 2016 elections, specifically Russian advertising and influence.
Going forward, Zuckerberg says Facebook plans to verify the identities and locations of political advertisers and pages to avoid inappropriate foreign or domestic influence, including the spread of false information from the Kremlin. But it’s not your average Russian buying ads or posting fake news.
Marketplace Weekend wanted to learn more about how most Russians do use the internet, and how the Kremlin exerts control over access and usage.
Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, joined the show to discuss Russian internet usage. Here are some key takeaways.
1. About 76 percent of Russians use the internet. And most people get online using their mobile phones, which are cheap and effective. Russia’s internet penetration is about on par with the United States, according to Jankowicz. Both large countries have a lower percent of their populations online than the UK, which has about 90 percent internet penetration.
2. Russia loves YouTube. According to Jankowicz, “YouTube is the most popular social media tool in Russia, with about 63 percent of Russians using it.” After that come two Russian sites, VKontakte, which translates to “in contact,” and which is like a Russian version of Facebook, and Odnoklassniki, which translates to “classmates.” About 35 percent of Russians use Facebook, but it’s “nowhere near as popular” as the Russia sites or as YouTube, according to Jankowicz.
3. The Kremlin has a lot of control. While the Russian government typically doesn’t bar entire sites (with some notable exceptions), they do crack down heavily on individual URLs. If there’s an activist YouTube channel posting content the Kremlin disagrees with, they might block the URL in Russia — Russians will still be able to get on YouTube, they just won’t see channels or videos blocked within the country. VPNs, which have typically been a way around URL blocks, are banned in Russia, but Jankowicz says that’s been hard to enforce.
When the Kremlin does ban a site outright, it’s usually because of a dispute over where Russian user data is hosted, or over encryption. In the case of the messaging app Telegram, whose channels are a source of news for many Russians, it’s both.
4. You can be imprisoned over minor social media interactions. Jankowicz says that the Kremlin has created “a climate of fear on the internet.” Workarounds to access banned sites or encrypt user data can be costly and intimidating. “There have been hundreds of arrests per year and criminal cases … for charges of extremism or terrorist content, that are very vague in Russia and blanket applied to Facebook, VKontacke, Instagram,” Jankowicz said, “People are put in jail, literally, for liking things on Facebook.