The number of criminal cases opened on extremism charges in Russia has doubled during 2014, and the Internet is responsible for most of the growth, as more political activity, campaigning, and recruiting happen online, and law enforcement becomes more web-savvy.
According to an Izvestia report which quotes the numbers from the Russian Supreme court, in 2012 the courts received 260 criminal cases under “extremism” articles 280 and 282 of the criminal code, and 208 people received sentences for extremism. In 2013 this number grew to 402 court cases and 309 persons sentenced.
By the end of August 2014 the Interior Ministry's counter-extremism division had already sent 485 cases to the courts, with 594 persons named as defendants in those cases. Sverdlovsk region and Tatarstan took the lead on extremism charges in Russia, with 38 and 33 criminal cases respectively.
The Interior Ministry says the growing numbers of cases and convictions are caused by a spike in online activity, both on the part of the politically active citizens, and on the part of law enforcement. In 2014 alone over 500 “extremist materials” have been removed from the web, and 406 pages or communities were deemed “extremist” and taken down. The Interior Ministry concludes that extremism in Russia is becoming less explicitly violent, and more digital in nature, as it moves online. Those labeled by the authorities as “extremists” engage in fewer forceful actions on the streets and use social networks to share their calls to action and rally for their causes.
An extremism research think tank at Saint Petersburg State University concludes that most materials that resulted in criminal investigations this year had been published online several years earlier, and the only reason the court cases are piling up now is that law enforcement has become more diligent at checking websites and discovering “extremist” content. Sergey Kuznetsov, the think tank's director, told Izvestia that a good share of the investigations deal with content that has been online for ages, and is just now registering on the investigators’ radar.
The Ministry's operatives acknowledge it's more difficult to counteract “extremists” online, since the space often allows them to remain anonymous and to open new platforms for political action once the existing ones are blocked, whether by setting up mirror websites or by creating carbon copies of their public pages on social networks.
Kuznetsov also claimed that Russian nationalists are becoming less active online, while Ukrainians are occupying the vacant spaces.
В социальных сетях снижается активность русского национализма, зато резко возросло количество материалов от украинских экстремистов. Они приходят в российский сегмент соцсетей и выкладывают там провоцирующие фото-, видео- и текстовые материалы.
The activity of Russian nationalism on social networks is waning, while the number of materials from Ukrainian extremists has seen rapid growth. They come to the Russian segment of the social networks and publish provocative photos, videos and textual content.
The Kremlin has made a concerted effort to limit the online freedoms of its citizens lately, and the “extremism” articles in the criminal code and their application to online content are just one of many examples of the crackdown. Other initiatives include the notorious blogger law requiring anyone with a daily audience of over 3 thousand users to go on a government registry, the law on personal data retention mandating websites store Russians’ data inside the country, and more extravagant suggestions by some politicians, such as the call to prepare for an autonomous Internet in Russia.
While the authorities’ explanations for the growth of convictions on charges of extremism seem logical, they are also a prime example of the demonization of the Internet as a space that is unregulated, unsafe and needs a firmer set of controls in order to function properly. Given the recent wave of email password leaks, VKontakte shutting down a number of ISIS-related accounts, and the unwise use of social networks by Russian soldiers exposing their presence in Ukraine, the shadowy menace of “online extremists,” coupled with hysteria around the Ukrainian nationalist and far-right agenda, emerges as an excellent scare tactic which could potentially undermine the desire of many Russians to post critical thoughts on their blogs or pages, let alone engage in any kind of subversive activity online. Just how much the Russian authorities are afraid of the free Internet and whether they will manage to scare Russian netizens into complacency remains to be seen.