Russia has officially outlawed fake news.
On March 7, the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, approved a package of laws aimed at curbing dangerously irresponsible “fake news” and public dissent against the authorities. Pending approval from the upper chamber of the parliament, the Council of the Federation, and then a signature from President Vladimir Putin, the bills will become law.
The first bill (part of a package of amendments to Russia's media law and administrative code) was steamrolled through parliament in less than three months since its filing in December 2018. The bill defines “fake news” as “deliberately misleading messages of public importance…disguised as genuine public announcements,” and prohibits the act of circulating this type of information with the clear intention of provoking public disorder or other serious disturbances.
The bill provides a schedule of fines, based on the severity of infraction: Private individuals can face fines from 30 to 100 thousand rubles ($455 to 1525.) Legal entities can be fined up to 1,5 million rubles ($22,660) for the most egregious cases resulting in grievous bodily harm, death, mass unrest or damage to critical infrastructure. This is enough to blow an enormous hole in a medium-sized newsroom’s budget.
On the face of it, the law looks reasonable. There is indeed an argument to be made that fake news on social media can cause mass panic or escalate to situations of mob violence and even lynching, as has happened in multiple cases in India, Sri Lanka and beyond. Ironically, at least one recorded attempt at provoking panic and confusion — and also involving critical infrastructure — was traced to the infamous Russian “troll factory” by New York Times Magazine reporter Adrian Chen back in 2014. So the fears of Russian legislators’ that the same weapons could be turned against Russia are not unfounded.
But certain provisions in the new law indicate that the real targets are those online news outlets still not fully controlled by the state or its subsidiaries. The law stipulates that if news websites publish content that violates the law, they should be given a warning and 24-hour grace period to remove the offending content. But this courtesy only applies to news websites with a government-issued broadcasting license. Others who do not have a license — as is the case with many smaller news websites — will be blocked immediately by their hosting providers at the request of the attorney general’s office.
Few journalists believe that the state’s own media outlets will be the target of this new law. A skeptical Vasily Maximov quipped:
Прямо так и вижу, как огромные штрафы один за другим сыплются на Первый канал, Россию-24, НТВ, РИА-Новости, RT, Звезду и остальных фейкометов масштабом поменьше: pic.twitter.com/IcMmWSYW4Q
— VASILY MAXIMOV (@vasilymaximov) 7 марта 2019 г.
Yeah, right, I can just see crippling fines raining down on Channel One, Rossiya 24, NTV, RIA Novosti, RT, TV Zvezda [TV channels and news agencies owned directly or indirectly by the Russian government] and other, smaller fake news firehoses.
The new law is so universally disdained that even the Kremlin’s loyalists can’t withhold their disgust. Lexus the Prankster, aka Alexey Stolyarov, one member of a duo of prank callers who have made a career of phoning the Kremlin’s opponents and publishing recordings of their conversations with figures such as Boris Johnson, tweeted on March 7:
Сегодня Госдума приняла позорный закон, к которому мы, к счастью, в этом виде не имеем отношения. Год назад они приглашали нас в качестве экспертов по его разработке.Свои материалы мы передали главе комитета Левину. Вместо этого, они (не знаю, кто исполнители) взяли и испоганили
— пранкер Лексус (@Lexusprank) 7 марта 2019 г.
Today, the State Duma passed a deplorable law, thankfully no longer connected to us in its current form. A year ago they invited us as experts to help them put together a draft. We shared our insights with [Leonid] Levin, the chair of the committee. Instead, they (I’m not quite sure who is actually responsible for the execution) took it and twisted beyond any recognition.
Alexander Kots, a war reporter for the staunchly pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on his Telegram channel that law's fines are extreme enough to deter media houses from publishing:
Госдума приняла-таки антифейковый закон для СМИ, в котором прописала для редакций многотысячные штрафы за распространение фейков. Суммы такие, что в региональных редакциях стажерам придется почки продавать, чтобы расплатиться. Поэтому наказание называют больше профилактическим. Чтоб неповадно было.
The State Duma did indeed pass the anti-fake news law for the media today. Newsrooms can be now fined for the multiples of thousands of rubles for spreading fake news. The figures are such that interns at regional newsrooms will have to sell a kidney to pay it off. So they call it more of a prophylactic measure. To serve as a warning to others.
Kots also notes that there is no clear legal distinction between genuinely malicious disinformation (a rash of which was seen after a shopping mall fire in Siberia that killed 60 people) and less clear-cut cases where there is genuine confusion or conflicting messages or versions of the same event.
В качестве примера приводится “Зимняя вишня” и разогнанный фейк ублюдка Вольнова о количестве погибших. Тут, видимо, угроза массового нарушения порядка в виде несанкционированного митинга горожан. Но это откровенный фейк.
Не очень понятно, как теперь быть с версиями, допустим, катастроф или других трагических событий. Их же через различных экспертов выдвигается бесчиленное множество каждый раз. Несет ли в себе высказывание предположения одну из перечисленных угроз.
As an example, they [proponents of the law] cite the Winter Cherry case and that fake about the casualties that bastard Volnov was pushing. There evidently was a threat of mass unrest at an unsanctioned rally held by the [concerned] citizens. But that was clearly a case of fake news.
But it makes less sense in cases where there are different versions of the same, say, natural disaster or other tragic event. Each time there’s a confusing chorus of experts putting forward an infinite number of conflicting versions. Does every piece of conjecture carry the same threat?
Other journalists felt there was little to discuss seriously:
Ура, депутаты фейковые новости запретили, значит, теперь все в интернете правда
— Kirill Artemenko (@be_art) 7 марта 2019 г.
Hooray, the [Duma] deputies banned fake news, so everything on the internet is true now!