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Twitter’s service continues to be partially accessible in Russia, although the social networking platform confirmed today that it is aware of reports of users in the country having “increasing difficulty” accessing its service, adding that it is investigating and working to restore full access.

“We’re aware of reports that people are increasingly having difficulty accessing Twitter in Russia. We’re investigating and working to fully restore access to our service,” a Twitter spokesperson told us.

A source inside Russia told us they’ve been unable to access Twitter’s website since Saturday — but they also said that its mobile app still works.

On Friday reports suggested Twitter’s service had been blocked by Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, as Putin’s regime continues to clamp down on the free flow of information in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

Although, at the time, Twitter said it has not seen any significant change vs the throttling that’s been affecting its service since the invasion of Ukraine began, and after some Russians took to the streets to protest the war.

Twitter’s line has evolved to a tacit confirm of a partial block now.

There’s no doubt Russia is trying to tighten its grip on the information sphere around the war in Ukraine.

Also Friday, Russia’s parliament passed a draconian new law targeting independent journalists, with the threat of up to 15 years in jail for reporting ‘fake’ information about the military.

The same day the Russian government announced that it would block access to Facebook — a move that was seized upon by Facebook/Meta president, Nick Clegg, to couch the social network as a provider of contrastingly “reliable information”.

Yet Clegg’s irony-free claim came just a few days after Meta disclosed discovery of Russian propaganda spreading on its platform, saying last Monday that it had taken down a network of circa 40 accounts/Pages/Groups on Facebook and Instagram being run out of Russia which had been targeting people in Ukraine with disinformation — just the latest example of state-backed “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (aka disinformation) being hosted on Facebook. So of course it’s never so black & white.

(See also: The role Facebook’s ad targeting platform played in enabling the massive spread of Kremlin-funded election interference targeted at the US 2016 election, for an especially notorious example.)

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Facebook has also been used to amplify public calls for peace within Russia — such as the local IT workers who used the platform to spread an anti-war petition which went on to garner thousands of signatures from the country’s tech community.

Our source inside Russia told us they are still able to access Facebook as of today — but again via its app, not the web.

Russia’s ability to fully block access to Western social media platforms looks doubtful, short of more drastic action to technically disconnect the Internet in Russia from the global Internet and block access to VPNs etc (or else by making it illegal for Russians to access anything other than .ru domains) — given the availability of workarounds to blocks on web domains, such as mobile apps and the use of VPNs or even using Tor.

Russia’s largely unsuccessful attempts a few years ago to block the Telegram app underline some of the technical challenges of trying to block mobile apps.

However degrading the ability of Russians to easily access outside sources of information — while flooding the airwaves with state-controlled propaganda — may have much the same effect for all too many citizens. 

The draconian content legislation Russia’s parliament agreed Friday also led another social network — TikTok — to quickly suspend the ability of users in the country to post new content, citing concerns for its employees and users. So Putin’s regime is using multiple levers in a bid to control more of the narrative online.

It’s also worth noting that, since 2015, Russia has been working on a project to build a national internet, suggesting it has an ambition to be able to fully control the digital information sphere, even if it has not been able to pull that off yet.

The war in Ukraine could supercharge Russia’s effort to create self sufficient digital “segments” — as Putin put it back in 2019, discussing the risk of the West denying Russia’s access to the global Internet (although internal tech development is also likely to be hit hard by Western sanctions).

Fast forward to 2022 and it’s Putin that wants to deny Russians’ access to Western segments of the web which he cannot completely control, as local censorship efforts are dialled up and put on a war footing.

In recent days, Europe has also responded to Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine by evolving its own response to Russian propaganda — with EU lawmakers agreeing an unprecedented ban on the distribution of Kremlin-backed state media outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik last week.

The ban covers online platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, as well as traditional broadcast media (such as satellite).

The EU has said the prohibition on RT and Sputnik will last as long as Russia continues the war in Ukraine — also stipulating that it will not be lifted until Putin stops spreading propaganda against the EU and its Member States.

 



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