On February 24 2022, Vladimir Putin escalated the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war and ordered troops to attack Ukraine, with the goal of “denazifying” the country. The invasion has since been bogged down, and Russia has become the target of broad international sanctions while the international community has largely backed Ukraine. To maintain control of the situation, the Kremlin seems to be making strides towards instituting a new Iron Curtain, tailored for the modern era. The long-term ramifications of the Digital Curtain and its impact on domestic and international perception will probably be studied for years to come.
Following the Cold War, there was hope that Russia would integrate into the West. But under Vladimir Putin, the hope for Russia to become a liberalized society has not materialized. Instead, there have been crackdowns on dissent and assaults on the freedom of press and freedom of speech. The invasion of Ukraine has led to even more severe restrictions. Under the guise of “freedom of speech,” the Kremlin has blocked access to Facebook in Russia. Additionally, access to Twitter has also been restricted, and Instagram is slated to be blocked as well. Meanwhile, VK, the social media platform run by Putin’s cronies, has reportedly been censoring content critical of the war, leaving the network swamped with content supporting the invasion.
Video on VK claiming that the Donbas region is close to being liberated, and Donbas residents will finally be free — thanks to the Russian soldiers.
Meme on VK of a Chechen soldier explaining to a child that the purpose of the invasion is to protect people
Why is Putin shutting down access to social media? The answer boils down to one word — “perception.” To support the “war effort,” the Kremlin must control how Russian citizens perceive the invasion. If they are exposed to the struggles of the Russian military and the fact that thousands of Russian soldiers have fallen into captivity, this might trigger discord. The last thing Putin wants is an unhappy populace energized into acting against the regime. The younger generation in Russia will likely not stay quiet forever, they are not stuck in the dark. Having been exposed to the West, connected to social media, and aware of different cultural and economic sanctions targeting Russia, they know that life is not continuing as usual. They know something is wrong. As seen on numerous occasions over the last decade, popular organizing is catalyzed by social media, thus shutting down access is another way to ensure regime stability. As it is, over 13,000 Russian dissenters have been arrested for protesting the war, with demonstrations occurring in over 50 cities in Russia. By engaging in different strategies to avoid the breakout of large protests, Putin is doing all he can to retain his grip on power.
Ukrainians have put together an admirable effort on social media, creating content which lambasts and ridicules failures and errors by the Russian military. This success is a big blow to Russia’s influence warfare, which has long been perceived as sophisticated and successful. Indeed, during the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Russia was quite successful in controlling the narrative. While Russia’s influence machine has been dealt a blow by social media platforms, the West has been able to counter by releasing intelligence and sounding the alarm early. With more correspondents from the free press reporting from the ground, it is more difficult for Russia to control the narrative. Additionally, media-savvy Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has done an excellent job by having frequent briefings and videos, where he has been building his legacy as a remarkably brave leader who refuses to back down and hide from the neighborhood bully.
Shutting down social media also makes it more difficult for the West to understand how Russian society is responding to the invasion of Ukraine and the economic crisis it has triggered. The more they are in the dark, the more difficult it will be for them to pressure Putin when the time comes for serious negotiations. Additionally, it impacts the ability of the West to target the Russian population with influence operations or simply provide Russians with accurate information.
On the other side of the Digital Curtain, business is not continuing as usual. In response to Russia’s disinformation and propaganda campaigns, Russian state-backed media such as RT and Sputnik have seen their access to markets in the West severely restricted. In the EU and UK, one can no longer download the RT and Sputnik apps from the Google Play Store. The apps have been completely taken off the Apple App Store. Social media platforms have taken steps to limit the reach of RT and Sputnik, with Meta blocking access to their assets in the European Union. Instagram has buried content from Russian state-controlled media, making it more difficult to find for users all over the world.
Alongside the violent aspect of the war, the battle of narratives and perception is becoming increasingly essential. As the Russian economy continues to nosedive, will the strategy of Ukraine and the West turn out effective and force Putin’s hand? Or will Putin continue his success in holding the Russian population captive?