Pregnant, posting, then detained: Russia is cracking down on social media amid the Ukraine invasion – Grid News

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Pregnant, posting, then detained: Russia is cracking down on social media amid the Ukraine invasion

On the morning of Feb. 24, a woman in Moscow woke up and checked her social media to discover a nightmare became real overnight: Russian shells had rained down across Ukraine, where some of her relatives live.

Later that day, the woman — pregnant and already a mother — reposted an activist’s encouragement for people in Russia to rally against the war that evening. “The situation with the war is so serious, that I thought there will be some man or woman who will [be] brave enough” — even despite legal restrictions on political assembly — “to say the time and the place,” she told Grid.

Police came for her seven hours later.

Since the start of the war last week, Russian police have arrested nearly 7,000 protesters, according to the human rights media project and legal assistance organization OVD-Info. Viral videos have shown police beating protesters and loading them into cramped police vans.

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The relatively private act of posting on social media can also get average Russians into trouble. Social technology can be a powerful new age organizing tool, one that Russia protesters have used successfully in recent weeks to organize large-scale protests in the streets. Russian police are attempting to squash its power with a very old tactic: in-person intimidation.

Social media has also been woven into an expanding legal apparatus in Russia that captures a growing list of offenses in its net under the guise of policing extremism and unlawful assembly.

On Friday, the Moscow woman appeared in court, where administrators had a printed copy of her Facebook activity. She told them, “There are some historic moments when it’s very important to go to the streets and say, ‘No,’ and this is such a historic moment.” Then, she pleaded guilty.

The woman was charged under an administrative law governing assembly and fined 20,000 rubles — almost half the average monthly salary in Russia. (Grid has confirmed her identity and story but, for her safety and that of her family, is withholding her name and some identifying details.)

Vague, strict laws bar assembly in Russia

Russian rights experts said they are not surprised to see the Russian government cracking down on social media use. Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, an international community-based newsroom, said that it’s reflective of a state strategy to force people to acknowledge its power and engage with official state narrative, even if it’s untrue.

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“Russia will capriciously apply rules, and then sometimes ignore their own rules and just go ahead and do something or retroactively build a rule,” said Sigal. “Or they will arrest you for something else entirely.”

Selective enforcement of laws around social media leads to self-censorship, Sigal said. If you know that police detained a friend of yours for sharing something, you might think twice before sharing it yourself.

That concern has ratcheted up in recent years, said Lauren McCarthy, a professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who researches law and human rights in Russia. In early 2021, for instance, police cracked down on protesters supporting opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and reports emerged of people losing jobs and school placements for their dissent.

That was on the Moscow woman’s mind when she logged onto Facebook. She knew she would not attend a protest herself, fearing what might happen to her pregnant stomach in the crush of a crowd.

For months, she has posted on social media only for friends. But in “this situation, I had high emotions and I did open [my posts],” she said.

“We love Ukraine, a lot of Russian people have relatives in Ukraine,” she added.

On Thursday afternoon, opposition politician Marina Litvinovich posted a video and announcement onto Facebook calling for Russians to head to the central squares of their cities at 7 p.m. She was detained that evening, questioned about her social media use and later pleaded guilty to organizing an unauthorized gathering. She was charged 30,000 rubles, according to her Facebook page.

When the Moscow woman learned of Litvinovich’s detention, she thought perhaps the police might come for her, too. But she did not delete her post.

The law under which she was ultimately charged represents an expansion of the federal administrative code, said McCarthy, the Massachusetts professor. Until 10 years ago, she said, nobody would have given much thought to the structure of the administrative code, which is roughly comparable to American civil law, as distinct from criminal law.

But Article 20.2, which regulates demonstrations and other mass gatherings, is now notorious.


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That law has changed dozens of times in the last several years, said McCarthy. It has become vaguer, stricter and tied to steeper penalties, with fines so high a person cannot withdraw the full amount in one trip to the ATM. As a result, all manner of activity can now be classified as a violation — including reposting information about an assembly you don’t even plan to attend.

“It’s a classic move of authoritarian regimes to use the law in this way,” McCarthy said. “You write a vague law with harsh penalties that can be applied in a variety of different ways, depending on the needs of the state at the time.”

“At this point, any gathering of people is illegal, essentially,” she added.

The other way that Russian law enforcement targets social media use is through its anti-extremism laws passed in 2012, McCarthy said. Public calls to separatism are forbidden, for example; that can now include disagreeing with the 2014 annexation of Crimea. So, too, is “public justification of terrorism,” which can include posting anything about opposition leader Navalny, whose party is a listed terrorist organization.

“It’s become very flexible to be used, particularly in the social media sphere,” she said.

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Online actions provoke real-world retaliation

In a 2018 article published in the Journal of Comparative Politics, authors Sergey Sanovich, Denis Stukal and Joshua A. Tucker identified offline response to online opposition as one method of restricting social media available to authoritarian regimes.

Such offline responses range from legal action to physical intimidation. Since 2012, Russia has levied large fines and significant prison terms on authors of social media posts — and on those who reposted them, the authors write.

Sigal, of Global Voices, points to a Russian law that took effect on Jan. 1 requiring social media sites with more than 500,000 daily Russian users, such as Facebook and other large platforms, to have a legal entity or local subsidiary based in Russia.

These local entities are expected to bear the brunt of retaliation if their parent companies incur the wrath of the Russian state. If Facebook’s corporate parent Meta, for example, does not comply with Russian government orders, its local office would face the consequences.

A similar situation exists in India, where the government threatened local employees of Twitter, Meta and WhatsApp with jail time if their companies did not comply with takedown requests from the Indian government over popular protests.

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In December of 2021, Russian authorities blocked the website of the human rights media project OVD-Info and asked social media companies to block the organization’s accounts, according to María Kuznetsova, OVD-Info’s spokesperson.

Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter and VK, a Russian social media company purchased in December by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not comply.

Nevertheless, the Russian government has gone after these platforms in other ways. Over the past year, it has fined platforms including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram billions of rubles over several court cases, primarily for hosting content related to Navalny.

On Friday, Russian telecoms regulator Roskomnadzor said it would limit access to Facebook after the platform restricted access to some state-backed Russian media accounts. The Kremlin had previously told Facebook to stop fact-checking and labeling content from the aforementioned Russian media accounts, according to a statement from Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta.

Kuznetsova told Grid that OVD-Info has been in touch with multiple people detained over social media posts. Some were still being held in jail and could face up to 10 days of detention for their posts, she said.

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She also warned that the speed of censorship would increase in coming days.

“They have started to threaten all media who translate a Ukrainian and international point of view,” Kuznetsova said.

As of Feb. 24, only information from official Russian channels is allowed to be shared, per Roskomnadzor. News outlets are officially banned from using the words “assault” or “invasion” in describing Russia’s assault on and invasion of Ukraine. Alternative and independent news sites, both Russian and Ukrainian, have been blocked inside Russia, and journalists have been detained.

Social media platforms have scrambled to respond. Last week, Meta said that it had launched an initiative to allow Ukrainians to lock their profiles; on Monday it said that it would restrict access to the Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik. Also on Monday, Twitter announced that it would label Russian state-affiliated media and is “taking steps to significantly reduce the circulation of this content on Twitter.” YouTube said it would pause and limit recommendations to channels “affiliated with recent sanctions.” But these changes do not address the risk that Russians take when they write posts critical of the Putin administration or the war.

The Russian government’s targeting of people for social media posts is part of a broader push to discourage protest, said McCarthy. Riot police in the streets and those on desk duty perusing social media face the same informal quota system — understood since the Soviet policing system — to bring in people on administrative violations, with rewards for hitting higher numbers year over year.

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The police who detained the Moscow woman were local, the woman said, and she described them as gentle, surprised to see her pregnancy. They let her call her husband before she left and said she could keep her phone while at the station.

“I asked, ‘Don’t you feel ashamed?’ I asked them, ‘Do you want to live in such a country?’” the woman remembered. “And [I said] that I want that my baby will live in another country, with another president. I felt free to say such things.”

This story has been updated.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.

  • Benjamin Powers
    Benjamin Powers

    Technology Reporter

    Benjamin Powers is a technology reporter for Grid where he explores the interconnection of technology and privacy within major stories.