Now Russia Has Its Own Ultimatum for Twitter

If Twitter doesn’t remove content Putin dislikes, he’ll ban it. But that will hurt him more than the platform.

By Ivana Stradner, a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A woman speaks on a mobile phone as she walks past a graffiti-covered wall with a giant hashtag sign near Kursky railway station in Moscow on Nov. 17, 2017.
A woman speaks on a mobile phone as she walks past a graffiti-covered wall with a giant hashtag sign near Kursky railway station in Moscow on Nov. 17, 2017. Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Kremlin issued an ultimatum to Twitter: Ban content we dislike or we’ll ban you. Labeled a “tool of global digital diktat in the hands of the Western establishment” by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Twitter was given one month to respond. As Twitter head Jack Dorsey and others mull Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest authoritarian demand, the company should remember that the Kremlin has more to lose than Twitter. Moscow may not have the capacity to enforce its tough line even if it tries, and if it does try, it risks adding another catalyst to growing discontent among the country’s youth.

Russia’s latest efforts at censorship comes three months after Putin signed legislation allowing Russia to restrict social media platforms to protect the country’s “digital sovereignty.” The new laws allow Russia to impose fines on platforms that fail to block forbidden content, nominally meaning posts it deems to promote suicide, child pornography, or the purchase of illegal drugs online. Political activists and human rights advocates, however, suspect that Putin’s recent necessary censorship on behalf of “the moral laws of our society” is actually intended to silence protest and opposition.

In the name of staving off a feared social implosion, since 2017, Russia’s internet regulatory agency—Roskomnadzor—has demanded that Twitter remove more than 28,000 posts. Twitter has mostly complied, but the continued existence of more than 3,000 disputed posts has displeased the Roskomnadzor, which retaliated by slowing down the speed of photo and video content for the site on March 10. Twitter has remained unfazed, leading the internet regulation agency to up the ante with the threat of a total ban.

Threats notwithstanding, Putin’s new gambit is likely a bluff. First, there are serious questions about Moscow’s capacity to enforce its social media prohibitions. In 2018, the Russian government attempted to ban the dissident-friendly social media platform Telegram, only to lift the ban in 2020 because of technical difficulties. Roskomnadzor’s slow-down of Twitter’s speed also conspicuously coincided with a shutdown of many Russian government sites, leading to well-founded speculation that the internet regulatory agency so badly botched its Twitter takedown that it took out its own pages in the process.

But even if Roskomnadzor were competent enough to ban Twitter, a recent poll shows that only 3 percent of Russians use the platform, raising the question of why the Kremlin has chosen to target it.

Two theories make the most sense: Moscow was angered by Twitter’s late February decision to again remove dozens of accounts affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA)—a government-backed group notorious for its efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. This time, the cause was the IRA’s efforts to undermine faith in NATO and further advance Russian influence operations in the United States and Europe. The other theory is Russia’s move is likely meant as a signal to other social media companies that the Kremlin will come for them next.

Russia’s growing dissident movement often uses various social media platforms to coordinate demonstrations and anti-government protests. Roskomnadzor issued a statement in February requesting that “management of internet platforms … refrain from disseminating calls for participation in unauthorized public events” in the wake of mass protests supporting anti-Putin political leader Alexei Navalny. That same month, Russia’s criminal investigation service posted a video on YouTube arguing that social media platforms were “manipulating” Russia’s youth; what quickly became clear was the “manipulation” angering Russian authorities was efforts to coordinate massive anti-government rallies in support of Navalny. The Russian government reportedly plans to sue Twitter, Google, Facebook, TikTok, and Telegram for failing to delete pro-Navalny protest content.

But bans on social media are a double-edged sword. Here’s the problem for Putin: On the one hand, censoring criticism by crushing the means of expression will tighten the Russian tyrant’s grip on information. On the other hand, nearly half of Russia’s tech-savvy youth are quickly growing dissatisfied with their president for life, frustrated with his regime’s media-throttling clampdown on free speech and growing authoritarianism. Unlike state-controlled television and government-friendly mainstream media, social media is also the last major holdout of independent discussion in the country. A brazen (and poorly executed) ban on Twitter and other social media platforms will only fuel their discontent and further undermine the Kremlin’s authority.

As experiences in Iran and China make clear, it is almost impossible to completely shut down dissidents’ communication through social media. Putin’s ham-fisted censorship will most likely achieve only one end: further convincing his people he is afraid of them.

Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where her research focuses on the intersection of international law and security.

Tag: Russia