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Social media

When the government spreads fake news

by Drake Jamali

In brief

Watching a live broadcast.

Watching a live broadcast.

Russia’s secret service is manipulating information on the internet – with international impacts. In the Russian Federation itself, the freedom of expression is restricted ever more tightly.

Spanning almost two decades the Russian Federation has seen the gradual deterioration of civil freedoms. The biggest decline occurred after protests in the years 2011 to 2013, says Artem Koslyuk, the chairman of Roskomsvoboda, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). The Russian Duma, the national parliament, passed dozens of restrictive laws limiting the freedoms of speech, assembly and the press.

The FSB (the successor for the KGB as Russia’s federal security service) increased monitoring of internet usage, observing bloggers, journalists and citizens in general. But even today, arrests and police harassment of bloggers and social-media personalities is increasing throughout the country, says Koslyuk. It seems this authoritarian behaviour will not be abated soon.

At a panel discussion hosted by the international NGO Reporters without Borders in Berlin, Koslyuk said: “People are still motivated to protest against negative things the government does – social media plays a large role in connecting these people.” He does not want his country to become like China or North Korea where public dissent is extinct or endangered. However, he argues that Russia is too diverse and connected to the world for there to be complete government censorship.

In Koslyuk’s eyes, social-media platforms need to be made more accountable for the content that they allow, mainly because the daily user is bombarded with constant government propaganda. According to Irina Borogan, an investigative journalist, the FANGS (Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google) need to shore up their act: “It is increasingly difficult to receive reliable information from these organisations because the FSB controls the majority of the internet servers.”

In Russia, it has become risky to report stories that the government considers sensitive. Relevant topics include corruption, human rights and Russian foreign policy – in particular the wars in Syria and Ukraine.

In her view, the problem is that there is so much fake news regarding the wars that regular citizens are unaware of what is happening. Borogan argues that information is available on what the troops are doing in both countries “if you go looking”. Reporters who dare to do so, however, may end up in jail. “It is worth the risk; we are journalist, and it is our job to report in such issues that affect our nation whether it be positive or negative,” says Borogan.

According to Roman A. Sokharov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, covering corruption is more dangerous, “especially regarding Russia’s natural resources”. These resources tend to be owned by just a few oligarchs. Seekers of the truth struggle to decipher pro-government propaganda and to challenge it where necessary. Speaking in February, he rightly predicted President Vladimir Putin would be re-elected on 18 March. In his eyes, the majority of Russians are easily susceptible to state-run propaganda and fake news. Many do not read any other language than Russian and thus are cut off from foreign news sources.

Sokharov warns that FSB manipulations are of international relevance. It operates an army of social media bots that can make any story seem relevant or irrelevant, whether it is true or not. Even Britain and the USA were influenced by Russian fake news, Roman says. Moreover, the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election were affected by misleading reports on Russia Today – an English language media organisation which is funded by the Kremlin.

Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans Frontiers):

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