Eight months of ‘fakes’ and ‘discreditation’: How the Kremlin’s new laws against anti-war dissent are applied online

Image by Marco Verch on Flickr. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license. 

Since the escalation of the invasion of Ukraine, freedom of speech in Russia has suffered an extraordinary contraction. Scrutiny and censorship of the public and the media is widespread. Statements about the Russian Army that go against the official position of the state agencies are routinely criminalised. In the first eight months of the war, anti-war statements have served as a reason for criminal charges against 331 people in 64 regions.

Social media has given the police and special services more tools for finding and proving speech crimes and circulating information on arrests. The ruling party even set up a bot in the messenger service Telegram encouraging people to fight the “information war” on the government's side. These tactics contribute to establishing a panopticon-like regime of fear and self-censorship.

Expediting repression

Censorship and political repression are not new to Russia, but, in 2022, they reached new heights. Alongside new digital tools, new legislation allows the state to expedite and industrialise the repression of dissidents.

On the same day Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine,  Roskomnadzor announced that, when reporting on the war, the media must exclusively call it the “special military operation” and only draw on official government sources. In two days, Roskomnadzor started censoring war publications and, by October, blocked over 8,000 websites in Russia.

In a week, the parliament passed amendments to the Administrative Violations and Criminal Codes that came into force the same day. The new article (207.3) of the Criminal Code concerned the “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Russian Federation's military.” The punishment for disseminating “fakes” ranges from a RUB 1.5 million fine to 15 years of imprisonment. Another new offence is “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” The first time “discreditor” receives an administrative punishment (RUB 30,000–50,000 which is about USD 480–800, under article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Violations Code), whereas the second offence makes one a criminal (up to five years in prison under article 280.3 of the Criminal Code).

According to OVD-Info, by October, there were 107 criminal cases opened under the “fakes” article and 4,777 administrative cases under the “discreditation” articles, most of them concerning social media activity. Social media activity includes posts, comments, emoji reactions, messages in group chats, and YouTube videos; one case is also based on private telephone calls.

Public figures — journalists, civil activists, politicians, and bloggers — are more likely to be charged with a criminal case. The most remarkable arrest to date happened on July 12: municipal deputy Ilia Yashin was charged with “spreading fakes” in a YouTube video. An opposition politician since 2000 and a close associate of Navalny and Nemstov, Yashin has been persecuted throughout his entire career. For people like him, there is a saying from the Soviet times: “Find me the man, and I'll find you the crime,” meaning that the law can't stop the state from putting anyone in prison. Keeping in mind the scale of the bone that Putin had to pick with Yashin, the fact that his first criminal charge is under the “fakes” article is telling. Yashin's case is still in process, but another deputy Aleksey Gorinov was sentenced to seven years in penal colony for saying “war” instead of “special operation” at a meeting.

This law substantially alleviates the burden of formal procedures that the police and prosecutors need to carry out to create the illusion of a functional justice system and thus expedites the process of repression. This is also apparent at the local level. Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is common for people to be convicted with fines and lighter criminal sentences. Most of the defendants are civil activists and journalists with a small following, who have been on the state's radar already.

For instance, Yevgeniy Fokin from Novosibirsk is an urban activist. He was only 17 when charged for sending a message in the Telegram chat “Coalition Novosibirsk 2020″ with 2,880 subscribers. The message included arepost of the news article that quoted the Head of the Ukrainian President Administration claiming that all the nuclear facilities in Ukraine were occupied by the Kadyrovites. “I hope he is lying,” added Yevgeniy in the caption, “This is probably the worst news of the 21st century.” In his interview later, Yevgeniy wonders: “In my initial comment, I actually questioned the reliability of the information. And still, they say ‘knowingly false.'”  Sergey Nosov from Baklanovo village of the Oryol Region was accused of posting messages about massacres in Bucha and Irpen on the Telegram channel “The Nosov List” with 352 subscribers. In 2021, Aleksey Argunov, a university professor from Barnaul, asked his students to sign a petition against the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency. He believes that is why in 2022, he incurred a RUB 30,000 fine for a sad emoji and a like under somebody else's anti-war posts.

A few cases have been opened against ordinary people with no history of social activism. Among them are a stoker, a software developer, a driver, an archaeologist, and a digger.

Ritual of shame and intimidation

On June 28, the St. Petersburg police published a video where three officers of the Rapid Deployment Task Force in full gear tear a metal apartment door off the wall. They run inside screaming: “On the ground!” and we see a half-dressed middle-aged man lying on the floor face down and later apologising to the camera. It was Oleg Belousov, who lives with his adult son — both have disabilities. He expressed his anti-war views in a public group “Diggers of St. Pete” on the social network VK.com, and a fellow digging enthusiast reported him to the police.

The genre of police footage like this one is not new in Russia. However, such videos would usually be published or control-leaked only for high-profile cases like terrorism. Recently, the demonstrative use of excessive force and extravagant expenditure during the arrests for speech crimes has become a common phenomenon.

As for the police publishing video apologies on the internet, in Russia, this practice started in Chechnya in 2015 (for criticisms of the government and “honour faults”). In 2020, it was adopted by enforcement officers all over the country, mainly against “spreading fakes” about coronavirus. From 2021, we see many confessional videos of ordinary opposition members — and now the dissidents. It is safe to assume that most of these videos are filmed under pressure.

According to anthropologist Aleksandra Arkhipova, such videos may discredit the opposition. They show the protesters as weak, humiliated, and inconsistent, making it emotionally harder to support them.

For an anti-war movement in such a country as Russia — big and spread across long distances — digital connectivity is crucial. Given the colossal scale of censorship in media, the internet is the only place to access diverse information not filtered by the state. At the same time, police brutality towards street protesters in the last decade created an illusion that online spaces are safer for self-expression than offline, a view that has been challenged more and more in the past couple of years. Thus, when the police prosecute people for their opinions expressed in seemingly private and safe online spaces and advertise disproportionately violent arrests, it fosters even more paranoia and self-censorship within the opposition.

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