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How activists are using new tools to outsmart Russian censors

The drive to get information about Ukraine past the Kremlin propaganda wall is prompting innovative, old-fashioned strategies.

At the beginning of last year, Tobias Natterer, an editor at the DDB Berlin advertising agency, began thinking about how to evade Russian censorship.

His client, the German branch of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), was looking for more efficient ways to allow Russians to get the information their government didn’t want them to see. RSF had duplicated censored websites and hosted them on servers deemed too important for governments to block – a tactic known as collateral freedom. (“If the government tries to take down the website,” Natterer explains, “they have to take down their own websites as well, which is why we talk about collateral.”)

The problem was how to help people find these mirrored websites. Then came a crazy idea: what if they could smuggle news to Russian censors by hiding items – like Easter eggs in a video game – that people could unlock with a secret code? What if this secret code was generated by Russia itself, thanks to the winning numbers of the national lottery? Each time new issues were released, the team could use them to create a new web address. Anyone searching for these numbers on Twitter or other platforms would then find links to the banned site and prohibited information.

Talk about the moment. As they were about to launch the strategy in Russia and two other countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine. The Kremlin immediately suppressed national coverage of its actions, making the RSF/DDB experiment even more vital.

They mirrored the website of Meduza, an independent Russian-focused media outlet that was branded a foreign agent by the Russian government in April 2021. And since the invasion, traffic has been so high on the numbered lottery site that the team had to buy more server space and upgrade the site. RSF and DDB are also testing ways to use blockchain technology to create articles and photos of the war and plan to have more sites active in the coming days.

“We want to make sure that press freedom is not only seen as something defended by journalists themselves,” says Lisa Dittmer, Internet freedom advocacy officer at RSF Germany. “It’s something that’s part and parcel of any democracy and it’s an essential part of defending any kind of freedom you have.”

Propaganda has long been a staple of warfare. From bombs dropping pamphlets on enemy troops to home censorship, message control is often seen as key to mobilizing public support. Putin’s iron grip on what gets transmitted to Russians about his war in Ukraine is under attack on multiple fronts, from social media mole efforts to telemarketing campaigns, Telegram videos and more. Ukrainian entrepreneurs are even hijacking their own apps to let the Russians know what’s going on. While such efforts have mixed success, they demonstrate the ingenuity needed to win the information battle that is as old as warfare itself.

Activists have found other ways to deliver truth bombs to Russia about the invasion. In the UK, a crowdfunding campaign raised £40,000 to target Russians with digital ads with real war news. (Organizers say they ran 57 million ads before they were blocked in Russia earlier this week.) Hackers have also organized grassroots efforts: The group known as Anonymous has asked people to rate Russian restaurants and shops on Google Maps leave comments explaining what is happening in Ukraine. Meanwhile, an organization called Squad303 has created an online tool that lets people automatically send Russian texts, WhatsApp messages, and emails.

Some of the most effective strategies rely on old-school technologies. The use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, has exploded in Russia since the start of the war. This may explain why the country’s telecommunications regulator forced Google to remove thousands of URLs linked to VPN sites.

Putin’s iron grip on what is transmitted to Russians about the war is being challenged in myriad ways, from social media mole efforts to telemarketing campaigns to crowdfunded digital ads.

For Paulius Senūta, an advertiser in Lithuania, the weapon of choice is the telephone. He recently launched “CallRussia”, a website that allows Russian speakers to call random Russians based on a directory of 40 million phone numbers. Visitors to the site get a phone number along with a basic script developed by psychologists that advises callers to share their Russian connections and volunteer status before encouraging targets to hear what’s really going on. Suggested lines include “The only thing (Putin) seems to fear is news,” which then allows callers to emphasize the need to put it “into the hands of Russians who know the truth and are standing up to stop this. war”. In its first eight days, Senūta says users from Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world made almost 100,000 calls to foreigners in Russia.

In a modern world flooded with spam, scams, and other unwanted marketing messages, do any of these efforts even work? The impact of these voluntary efforts is less clear. “One thing is to call them and the other thing is to know how to talk to them,” says Senūta. As with any telemarketing call, the response from recipients has been mixed. While some have been receptive, others are angry at the interruption or suspect it was a ruse. “How do you talk to someone who’s been in a different media environment?”

Good question. After all, the Russian authorities have long been hostile to news that does not toe the party line. “You face this propaganda everywhere,” says Oleg Kozlovsky, Russia researcher at Amnesty International. Days after the invasion, the country’s communications regulator accused local media sites of spreading unreliable and false information, forcing only official government sources to be used for reporting. Terms like “war,” “invasion,” or “aggression” were banned from coverage, punishable by fines of up to five million rubles (now around $52,000) or 15 years in prison. Kozlovsky says, “It’s getting worse and worse.”

Existing censorship-free platforms like Telegram should be used rather than inventing something entirely new, Kozlovsky notes. (Last week, Arnold Schwarzenegger uploaded a lengthy video message to Russians via Telegram that included Russian and English subtitles.) However, that doesn’t mean it hurts to try new things too. .

“You don’t know in advance which ones will work and which ones won’t,” Kozlovsky says. “It’s very difficult to predict what will work, so it’s a good thing to have various methods and various initiatives to try to reach the Russians.”

The question is whether Russians realize that they are fed by a media diet of state-sponsored lies and the criminalization of truth. Dittmer thinks many Russians are eager to find out what is really going on. So far, RSF’s “Truth Wins” campaign has been viewed more than 150,000 times in Russia. (Previous efforts by DDB and RSF in various countries have included integrating censored news into a virtual library within Minecraft and a playlist on Spotify.)

Censorship also goes both ways. While Russian authorities have banned Facebook and Instagram as “extremists”, Western media outlets have in turn cut ties with state-controlled media due to Putin’s disinformation campaign. While withdrawing products and partnerships from Russia can send a powerful message to the Kremlin, such isolation also risks leaving a bubble of disinformation untouched. Fortunately, “effective censorship is next to impossible,” says RSF’s Dittmer, pointing to further efforts to use blockchain and gaming technology to disseminate information. “We can play cat and mouse with internet censors in a little more sophisticated way.”