New research finds that many Russians are self-censoring their online activity due to state propaganda which has convinced citizens that certain sites pose a threat to national security.
Researchers at Ohio State University’s School of Communication in Columbus, Ohio, analyzed data from a public opinion survey of 1,600 Russian citizens, finding that those who relied more heavily on television broadcasts (typically used by state authorities to promote pro-government viewpoints) to get their news and information were more likely to view the internet as a threat to their country, to refrain from visiting certain sites deemed extremist by the state and, on the whole, were more supportive of state-sponsored internet censorship.
The results are troubling, says study co-author Erik Nisbet of Ohio State, who contends that this form of self-censorship is a level above overt censorship by the state itself. “This is actually more insidious,” says Nisbet in a press release. “The government doesn’t have to rely as much on legal or technical firewalls against content they don’t like. They have created a psychological firewall in which people censor themselves.”
In 2012, Russian authorities created a blacklist of sites that were blocked due to content that advocated drug abuse, suicide and child pornography. Since then, the state has expanded the list to include sites with material declared to be “extremist” in nature.
Russia recently passed a law banning virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow users to anonymously view sites, including those featuring “unlawful content” banned by the state.
But the new study’s authors argue that even some sites that are not blocked are being avoided by citizens convinced that they are a national threat. “There is opposition TV, radio and newspapers in the country that are not blocked. People can find them freely. But our studies show that many deliberately choose to ignore those outlets,” says Olga Kamenshuk, visiting assistant professor at Ohio State and study co-author.
Nisbet says that the phenomenon of self-censorship is an under-studied topic. “Much of the academic research on the subject comes from the United States, where there is a lot of support for free expression and internet freedom,” Nisbet said. “But the U.S. is an exception in this regard, and not the norm. Much of the world is much more supportive of censorship than is the U.S.”
Each year, the group Reporters without Borders publishes its World Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries on censorship and freedom of the press. Its 2017 Index puts Russia 148th out of 180 countries, saying, “As TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become increasingly oppressive for those who try to maintain quality journalism or question the new patriotic and neo-conservative [agenda],” reads the group’s report on Russia. “More and more bloggers are receiving prisons sentences for their activity on online social networks.”
Canada ranks 22nd on the 2017 list, down from 18th place in 2016 due to recent incidents such as the surveillance by police of a number of journalists in Quebec in attempt to discover internal leaks. “Journalists in the country are not currently protected by any “shield law” and legislation like controversial Bill C-51 uses national security as an excuse to chill free speech and expression online,” reads the report.