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Why Russia just can’t quit YouTube

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The photo captures someone from behind watching a video of Alexei Navalny on YouTube.

The photo captures someone from behind watching a popular video of Alexei Navalny on YouTube. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)

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A major part of Russia’s war strategy is the control of messages spread online, both in occupied areas of Ukraine and within Russia itself.

Platforms like Facebook have been banned and labeled “extremist” by Russian authorities. Some sites, including YouTube, remain partially available. At the same time, the Kremlin is trying to push Russian users away from YouTube to a domestic video platform, “RuTube.”

It’s part of a strategy to convince citizens and content creators to abandon Western social media sites. But even though RuTube and YouTube were developed around the same time, the Russian video service hasn’t had YouTube’s success.

Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, tells us that in 2021 the platform had fewer than 3 million Russian users, compared to the 80-90 million Russians using YouTube.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Emerson Brooking: RuTube was quickly acquired by Gazprom, which is the huge Russian state gas company, which is also the mechanism through which the Russian government controls so many organizations and media in Russia. And so, as a result, the sort of content that was allowed on that platform got a lot narrower because the the industry executives were very sensitive about hosting anything which could lead to complaints by any government official. So a lot of young Russians, they chose YouTube instead. So that’s why RuTube stagnated.

Kimberly Adams: If I’m in Russia, what was my experience on YouTube, say, a couple of months ago, compared to now?

Brooking: Your experience, for the most part, was being a seamless member of the global internet. And so if you’re a Russian internet user today, you’ve been through very much a shock as many platforms that were previously freely accessible to you … those avenues are now being closed off. Many Russians today can still access the platforms that they used to do, they can still get on Instagram, or Twitter, through VPNs, which are widely used in Russia. But there’s certainly a new stigma by the Russian government in using these sorts of platforms. If you’re connecting to a lot of Western services today or speaking to Westerners, that puts you under suspicion.

Adams: What is Russian YouTube culture even like?

Brooking: It was and has been a distinct, fascinating culture. And it is a shame that this culture is, I think, in the process of fragmenting and disappearing. I’ve watched quite a number of the popular Russian YouTube videos. And like, one of their first ones was a teenage girl, just talking candidly, for ten minutes straight, about emo culture and about ska, this is the mid 2000s. There was someone who found themselves doing the same dance in all 177 Moscow metro stations. There has, of course, been plenty of pro-Putin and pro-Russian propaganda. But Russian YouTube was also at the heart of the political protest[s] against Putin, which reached their peak in 2012.

Adams: You know, we’ve heard threats about Russia retreating from the global Internet. How do you think these domestic platforms like RuTube, and if there are others, how do they play into this plan to create a parallel internet within Russia?

Brooking: We do see Russia trying to create a parallel internet. Instead of YouTube, it’s RuTube. Instead of Facebook, it’s V Kontakte. But I think the failure to outright ban YouTube really illustrates the limits of this attempt to create a parallel Russian internet, because not many Russians are keen to use it and, as a result, the Russian government and Russian censors’ options seem actually quite limited.

Adams: What about what YouTube is doing in response to this pushback in Russia? Several other social media companies have limited how much work and how much their platforms are being used in Russia. How does what YouTube is doing, in terms of its Russian audiences, compare to what other social media companies are doing?

Brooking: YouTube has very much followed the example set by other Western social media companies, notably Facebook and Twitter. Early in the war, they took action to reduce the spread, or sometimes remove entirely, Russian state propaganda channels. And then, after the U.S. launched its first sanctions against Russia, YouTube also suspended the paid-creator economy in Russia. But even then, a lot of popular Russian YouTubers are hesitant to move to RuTube and other domestic Russian alternatives because there’s a much smaller audience, it’s hard to track your engagement and there’s essentially no monetization options available at all.

Adams: So what do you see in the future of YouTube in Russia, and how Russians experience the internet?

Brooking: Russian autocrats, whether it’s Vladimir Putin or one of his potential successors, they see it now is a tool of Western information warfare. And I think they see the vibrant Russian digital culture is a threat to their power. So regardless of how the war progresses now, I think that Russian authorities in the months and years to come will take measures to isolate Russians ever further from the global internet.

Related Links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

You can check out Emerson’s work with his colleagues at the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

And an essay from Business Insider dictated by a Russian YouTuber all about his channel where he goes around Moscow interviewing people with questions like “How do Russians feel about Ukrainian President Zelenskyy?”

The answers, as you can imagine, are pretty mixed.

Russia’s efforts to promote RuTube and other domestic tech platforms may run into some staffing issues.

According to a story in The Washington Post, the country is experiencing a massive exodus of tech workers. The Russian Association for Electronic Communications says at least 50,000 to 70,000 workers have left Russia already, and the group expects 100,000 more to emigrate in the next month. That’s about 10% of Russia’s IT workforce.

We also did an episode here on “Marketplace Tech” early on in the war about efforts to preserve Ukrainian culture online, specifically efforts by archivists around the world to save the websites and online collections of museums and other cultural institutions before the Russian military could destroy the physical servers hosting them.

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