Russian Citizenry Wrestles the Kremlin’s Cyber-Bear
The Information Ghost Guns
The public/private partnership’s 21st century communication efforts to win the heart & minds of the citizenry, domestically and internationally, has taken a quantum leap in sophistication from the days when radio, television, print media dominated the information highway.
The internet has provided an unprecedented global immediacy of truth & lies to anyone and everyone who owns a mobile device. Today’s agendas are far removed from the simplistic perspectives of the government and the people, rather from every political shade through every sliver of their respective sub-groups.
Utilizing cutting-edge communication witchcraft through AI-generated deep fake language and imagery, like a funhouse mirror, any entity or savvy individual, often under the cloak of anonymity, can now contort the so-called truth to their truth as the only truth.
Furthermore, the gatekeepers of information flow which include democratic governments and tech & social media giants, can shutdown various routes of the information highway and redefine free speech.
Context is the skeletal infrastructure that supports the truth. Nowadays the context of an event or issue has been melted down leaving a glob of facts to be reconfigured and then poured into the mold of one’s customized creation. This newly formed and disseminated abomination represents the information “ghost gun” of 21st century with immediate global impacts.
To be fair, pre-pandemic, democratic and autocratic government communication practices obfuscated the truth to maintain public order otherwise lives would have been unnecessarily jeopardized during an emergency. Nowadays, whether by design or default, government and corporate credibility has suffered greatly.
Suppression vs. Expression
The Russo-Ukraine conflict is the first large-scale war between two sovereign countries in the 21st century in which the world relies on the internet for information.
Its predecessor was the Hong Kong protests, a non-lethal de facto civil war in which savvy, technical tactics were utilized by protestors to elude government censors and law enforcement in organizing protests.
The new technology forcibly places private industry and tech companies in the uncomfortable middle gray zone between the government’s need for unquestioned compliance, pandemic related or not, and the citizenry’s right to openly question and debate these mandates.
Finally, there’s a considerably difference with respect to personal risks in aggressively seeking the truth, or at least compelling counterpoint non-official perspectives, in a democracy vs an autocracy.
Disinformation, Misinformation and Damned Statistics
Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war many Russian citizens have actively sought alternative news information besides the Kremlin’s limited menu of news. Of course this doesn’t mean that the western media projects, sometimes unabashedly aggressive, its own biases and political agenda, rather there are more diverse and independent news sources from which western citizens can legally access.
To achieve diverse perspectives many Russians have had to circumvent the Kremlin’s cyber-barricades especially those who, for various reasons, prefer to remain in Russia. For this reason this struggle has turned into a 21st century cat & mouse game in a world of AI and electronic surveillance that has forever replaced the vintage hidden mini-printing press and mimeograph machines.
The Russo Cyber-Landscape
The following series of charts provide a sequential overview of measures & counter-measures as the Russian public attempts to access alternative, non-government information while the Kremlin attempts to block such access and provide their official version of the news.
The Russian pre-war, social media scene in 2021 is indicated on the following chart entitled Russia’s Most Popular Social Media Networks provided by Statista Global Consumer Survey.
The following chart entitled Growing Demand for Messaging Security in Ukraine and Russia provided by Sensor Tower, a private digital intelligence firm, present the explosive growth in encrypted apps before and after the Russo-Ukrainian war began.
Furthermore, to disguise the user and his location, there was a dramatic surge by Russian and Ukrainian internet users for Virtual Private Network (VPN) services as indicated in the following chart entitled VPN Use Surges in Ukraine and Russia, provided by Top 10 VPN, a service that reviews the quality of various VPN services.
An itemized list of downloaded apps – a plethora of VPN services - by Russian citizens to elude the Russian government’s attempts to block or identify users and locations is presented in the following chart entitled Russia’s Most Downloaded Apps in March provided by Sensor Tower via Quartz.
Russia’s Cyber-Bear Hug
The Kremlin is fervently battling Russian user attempts to reach alternative sources of information that go against the official government narrative. The following chart entitled Russian Attempts to Censor the Internet Skyrocket provided by Goggle Transparency Report compares their efforts against other countries.
With respect to actual Russian government internet shutdowns, the following chart entitled Internet Shutdowns Spike in Russia provided by Top10VPN presents a comparison with other countries.
At the start of the war the Russian government engaged in aggressive cyber “counter-measures” on the first day of the war (February 24, 2022) with a blitzkrieg of new Twitter accounts promoting pro-Russian sentiments in the following chart entitled Suspicious Activity on Twitter as Russia Invaded Ukraine by Indiana University Observatory on Social Media (oSoMe).
With respect to the economic cost of these shutdowns through March 22, 2022 is indicated in the following chart The Cost of Internet Shutdowns provided by Top10VPN.
The following chart entitled Where Governments Have the Tightest Grip on the Internet provided by Freedom House presents a 21st century trend of autocratic and illiberal control of social media and the internet.
In every society ranging from full-fledged democracies to totalitarian regimes and every version in-between, government control over information and its citizens attempt to seek alternative news has reached new sophisticated levels of control over how events are perceived, and ultimately which party has control of the narrative.
In the midst of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the Kremlin’s battle to control news flow amongst its citizens is a microcosm of what could evolve elsewhere regardless the crisis, the limits of control and how effective will it be on the citizenry.
With the possible exception of North Korea, total government communications control of the narrative is impossible. Instead they seek to control the communication critical pathways with credible influencers, just as they did during the pandemic so that the citizenry willingly complies and submit, with a hint of menace for flavor, to government and corporate agendas. The trick for this public/private cabal is to convince the public that they are protecting the citizens from themselves for the public good.
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The Cerulean Council is a NYC-based think-tank that provides prescient, beyond-the-horizon, contrarian perspectives and risk assessments on geopolitical dynamics and global urban security.